TREDYFFRIN >> Mike Barr opens his notebook, takes out his pen and jots down notes just feet from a game proceeding at a breakneck pace along the Kennett sideline Wednesday.
Missing from the Blue Demons bench is the constant patter of authority voices emanating from most sidelines. There’s no incessant repartee between coaches. Just Barr, presiding with his avuncular manner, over the game.
In more than three decades on the sidelines, Barr has seen plenty. So when the Kennett head man gets declarative, it carries extra weight.
“This is going to piss off my sons and all the players I coached,” Barr said Wednesday night. “But this has given me more satisfaction than I’ve ever had.”
Barr has found a new coaching harmony at Kennett, even on nights like a 3-0 setback to Conestoga in the District 1 Class 4A semifinals. In his fourth season at the helm of a program with no track record of success in the sport, the longtime Strath Haven coach and Delco Athletes Hall of famer has the Blue Demons in their first PIAA tournament.
And in helping a group of players on the periphery of the usual power centers in southeastern Pennsylvania realize its potential, Barr has gotten no small return for himself.
“This is the place where I start to find peace and solace and an understanding of why I’m coaching soccer,” Barr said. “Kids are learning; they’re getting better. They’re a great group and they get along so great. I would be a fool to complain.”
Barr, of course, has attained the accolades most coaches aspire to. He’s won more than 500 games, spending 20 outstanding seasons at Strath Haven where he won five District 1 titles, five PIAA championships and 15 Central League titles. He mentored dozens of Division I soccer players before quitting abruptly after the 2005 season.
A former pro player and coach, Barr worked at the high school level in his heyday because in the miniaturized sphere of American soccer, that was as close to the pinnacle as anything. A holder of a U.S. Soccer Federation A License, the same one pro coaches must obtain, he spurned offers from colleges before three seasons at Immaculata University’s fledgling program. In 2009, he began a role he still holds as the technical director for Eastern Pa. Youth Soccer Association, extending the net of his influence to this hotbed’s primary developmental apparatus.
All that is to say that that Barr, at 64, has plenty of reasons not to schlep the 45 minutes to Kennett daily for a third of the year. But Barr sees the building of Kennett, with its diverse student body and blue-collar reputation, as a manner of practicing what he preaches from behind the desk that he tries not to let confine him.
“It’s really incredible to see what we’ve done,” said senior captain James Tuley, one of several starters who’ve played for Barr since their freshman years. “We’ve had kids from all over the place, and what he preaches a lot is bringing the program to kids and people who’ve never had a chance to play at a high level, and I think he’s really turned it around and brought it to kids at that level.”
Tuley admires how practices often start with unstructured short-sided, 5-v-5 games, stoking competitive and creative juices. Barr, who has come to see the detriment of robotic, system-based soccer as stifling young American players, wants his players to be themselves. Given a roster with a heavy Latino influence — players more likely to have learned their skills in a weekend pickup game with adults than doing rote drills on a suburban turf field — Barr allows the flair and creativity to shine, something he’d advocate no matter who he coaches.
That freedom got Kennett to Teamer Field Wednesday. The Blue Demons made districts in three of Barr’s four seasons, all but 2015 (“that was the first time I had a losing record — didn’t bother me that much,” Barr said.) They twice won their opening game, but only this year were they able to slay favorited Ches-Mont rival West Chester Henderson to punch a states ticket.
Barr’s later-life revelations necessitate change No. 2 in his touchline demeanor, which is more reserved than what could be categorized diplomatically as a “heart-on-his-sleeve” approach in the halcyon Haven days.
“He’s completely different, 180 degrees the other way,” said a chuckling Ryan O’Neill, Barr’s former pupil, assistant coach and eventual successor at Strath Haven. “Obviously he’s well known at Haven in particularly for his distinct way of coaching. But all the things that may have gotten a reputation as being ‘negative,’ there’s none of that anymore.”
Part of that is something that Tuley, with his limited time scope, recognizes. The generations of stars that Barr churned out at Haven — which included 11 Daily Times Boys Soccer Players of the Year, including O’Neill in 1996, and a voluminous coaching tree — responded to the bad-cop method.
At Kennett, Barr tackles the mission in a different, remarkably self-actualized way. Tuley said it was “a little daunting at first” to play for Barr, thinking Kennett players had to live up to their coach’s past. The pressure weighed on them. But the coach helped dissipate that, whether by getting them to crack up after Wednesday’s game or inviting them to, with an eye toward a possible states rematch with the Pioneers, reflect and write down what they can improve on.
“In the past, we had a lot of pressure with a new coach because we knew that we were the future, we’ve got to turn this program around. We put that on our backs,” Tuley said. “But last year and this year, we realized with that pressure, we’re not going to get anywhere. We’ve just got to play free and play creatively.”
Call it an old coach learning new tricks, even if the results and the journey Barr can accompany his charges on is reminiscent of past glories.
“The whole Kennett community has gathered around us,” Barr said, nodding toward a sizeable cheering section. “I just want them to go far into states just so that they get a chance to enjoy this, because this is the most fun soccer there is.”