Pa. HS soccer team’s unbreakable defense records 17 shutouts
B.J. Rudge’s first step in creating a fierce defense was admitting he couldn’t do it alone. An offensive player in high school and college, Rudge naturally approached the game from one side of the ball. So to build a complete team, he needed help.
“When I first started coaching, I micromanaged everything,” Rudge said. “But what I learned over the years is that to make this program successful, I’ve got to find the right people who share the same vision to come in and support me.”
Hickory High School’s girls soccer team made history during the 2016 season, Rudge’s 13th year leading the program. The Lady Hornets became the first team in Mercer County (Pennsylvania) to advance to the final four, recording a school-record 17 shutouts in 24 games while outscoring opponents 148-8. Since taking over the team in 2004 — the program’s second year in existence — Rudge has compiled a 182-52-9 record.
Establishing one of the state’s most feared defenses didn’t happen overnight. Rudge first sought the help of specialists to teach critical aspects of his team, including coaches for defense, goalkeeping and conditioning. The move allowed him to focus more on principles, standards and the overall development of the team.
Next was to completely change the way his program and players saw defense. Rudge said that it’s not uncommon for coaches, especially at the high school or youth level, to bury their most unskilled players on defense, but that’s not the approach he wanted to take — in fact, he wanted the opposite.
“We look at putting our best, most solid players back on defense because we recognize how important that is to our team,” he said. “We had a girl that will probably play midfield in college, but she was such a great leader and core player that we put her in the middle of our defense and she was phenomenal. That’s a way we don’t minimize that role, but elevate it.”
Rudge’s success on defense prompted other coaches to call him and try to learn his secrets, but he insists it’s about hiring the right people. He found a coach with a Ph.D. in physical therapy who focuses on strength and conditioning, and another one of his coaches is strictly defense. Rudge admits he didn’t know much about training goalkeepers, so he found a coach to work individually with his last line of defense.
The 1-on-1 work deserves a lot of the credit, he said. Practices start with individual or position work before coaches move to team work and situational play. That’s been especially important for the goalkeeper, a position that Rudge feels has evolved over the years.
Goalkeeper coach Bob O’Kresik said there is emphasis on positioning, footwork and diving. Even though keepers spend most of their time stationary, O’Kresik wants their footwork to be on par with the other players on the field.
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“It used to be you’d put someone back there to get it and see how far they can punt it,” Rudge said. “We’re now seeing the goalkeeper producing like a field player.”
Rudge’s system is about putting players in a position that best showcases their strengths. He doesn’t favor one alignment over another, instead preferring to learn what places players in the best position to succeed. He called speed a weakness of his defense during the 2016 season, but he built a system that assured him it wouldn’t be a liability.
And though having the right coaches in place is critical, they wouldn’t get far without committed athletes. Rudge spends considerable time reinforcing his core values — conviction, passion, confidence and authenticity — and the players bought into his vision. Winning has become the standard for the Hickory girls soccer team, but Rudge wants his program to be about principles instead of results.
“In the process we started to enjoy the journey and not worry so much about the destination,” Rudge said. “We realize if we can make these girls be successful with this, it’s going to take care of the Xs and Os.”