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History underscores this year’s glory rides for Radnor, Strath Haven

The Strath Haven boys soccer team, under the tutelage of coach Ryan Smith (standing, far right), poses with its medals after winning the District 1 Class 3A championship at Upper Merion High School. The Panthers will play for the PIAA title Friday night.
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When Sam Holt took over the Radnor soccer program in 1984 from his mentor Bob Siemons, among the things he was bequeathed was a pile of papers, the detritus of two decades running a team.

Mike Barr’s role as unofficial historian around that time was more unspoken. Chris Jones, the first coach of a unified Strath Haven, had written it all down in the early 1980s – goalscorers, all-state picks, schedules, records. So Barr decided to follow suit?

The pair didn’t set out to add “chronicler” to their resumes. It wasn’t even posterity that they had in mind, per se. Holt didn’t organize Radnor’s history so that four decades later, he’d be on email chains with members of the 1980 state runner-up team, in locations around the globe. Barr didn’t seek to become the keeper of knowledge for one of Pennsylvania’s greatest programs at Strath Haven.

The dual intent wasn’t necessarily to have their protégés use that info to build on their legacies. But that’s how it transpired at both Radnor and Strath Haven.

Since the program debuted in 1965, Radnor boys soccer has had only five head coaches. Four of them — from left, Alan Mezger, Joe Caruolo, Sam Holt and Kyle Shilcock-Elliott — gathered in 2016 to dedicate part of the soccer field at Radnor High in Holt’s honor. Caruolo, with Shilcock-Elliott as his assistant, will coach the Raiders in Saturday’s PIAA Class 4A final. (Submitted photo)

This weekend marks the first time that two Delaware County boys soccer teams have played for PIAA championships in the same season. Strath Haven will take on West Allegheny in Friday’s Class 3A final; Radnor will meet Wilson in the Class 4A championship Saturday, both at HersheyPark Stadium.

It’s no coincidence that those two are the only Delco programs to ever have made a PIAA final, and the reason involves the legacies that Holt and Barr left at their respective programs, and also the freedom for successors to apply their personal spin on that heritage.

“It’s pretty cool, because you don’t know that it’s happening as it’s happening,” Holt said Thursday. “There wasn’t any structure when you were making it happen. It just happened, and it’s a real positive.”

Holt was revered through the decades at Radnor. Siemons founded the program in 1965; Holt began working his way through the middle school ranks in 1968, after three years in the army stationed in Alaska and Vietnam. He filled every role up the ladder before taking over the Raiders varsity.

When he took over, Holt saw the way in which programs like Lower Merion, Upper Darby and Barr’s Strath Haven operated, incorporating the past into the present.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” Holt said. “When you build a history and current players see the older players come back and make the hall of fame and they come back to the induction at the yearly banquet, there’s just a connection.”

Even the notoriously feisty Barr knew it, and his respect for Holt speaks volumes.

“It’s easy for me to hold animosity toward some coaches because sometimes that drove me to be more successful,” Barr said. “But for Sam, I admired him from the time I met him. …

“Sam had never gotten into states – I think they only took three teams from District 1. They were playing large schools like we were, we were playing for the championship of District 1, and I remember watching his face when Radnor clinched third place to get into states, and him hugging his son, Eric (a two-time All-Delco goalie who graduated in 1993). I almost felt like this is better than me winning districts.”

“Strath Haven was really who planted the flag, and the rest of us were really intent on competing with Mike and his teams,” Holt said. “Right now, that we’re rooting for each other is really cool.”

Were that history hermetically sealed like a ship in a bottle, it would make for a good reminiscing and little more. But at both programs, it’s a living, breathing history. Radnor has only had five head coaches in program history. Alan Mezger, the 1990 Daily Times Player of the Year, took over for Holt. Kyle Shilcock-Elliott, another former Holt player, followed, leading Radnor to the 2004 PIAA Class AA title. Now, Joe Caruolo is in charge, with Shilcock-Elliott as his assistant, a pairing which brought home a Class AAA district title two years ago.

Caruolo didn’t play for Holt, but rather earned All-Delco honors playing at Carroll. Holt raves about “a screaming goal” Caruolo scored against Radnor back in the day.

But like his four predecessors, Caruolo teaches in the district. After the Raiders advanced to the final Tuesday, Caruolo thanked Holt for preserving the history that he’s imparted to the team.

“To be a part of history and make your own history, that’s kind of what differentiates us from a lot of programs,” Caruolo said. “Credit to Sam Holt who kept record of the history dating back to 1965 and allowed you to play for something special … to play a role in history.”

The line of descent is more direct at Haven. Ryan O’Neill was the 1995 Daily Times Player of the Year, fueling one of Barr’s five state titles. He joined the staff and took over when Barr resigned in 2006.

O’Neill, whom Barr bestows the utmost praise as “the biggest overachiever in high school soccer that I ever saw” for his slight frame and immense skill, has been at the helm of the Panthers for 13 seasons. O’Neill succeeded early with the nucleus handed down from Barr. But as the landscape has shifted with the advent of developmental academies, few schools have been as hard hit by recruitment as Haven.

Radnor coach Ryan O’Neill

Yet O’Neill has found his way to pen a new chapter with this year’s District 1 title, and he’s mobilized the platform of its illustrious history to do so.

“You couldn’t ask for anything else,” O’Neill said. “It shows the kids how much history is behind it all, how important it is to the team, the school and the community, the alumni. And they’ve really seen that in the support they’ve received in the last couple of weeks.”

Holt said that of all the buzz he’s heard from former players, the most excited are the 1980 team, which lost in the final to Fleetwood. Several members plan to drive to Hershey, many of whom met and talked to the current varsity squad a few years ago when they were in town for a reunion.

It’s further evidence of the transformative power that occurs when individuals meld as a team on a deep states run. That journey creates the history that fosters more of it, as Barr and Holt once did, and as close friends O’Neill and Caruolo are now doing for untold future generations.

“I don’t think there’s a more joyous moment playing soccer than going to a state championship,” said Barr, who went to six of them. “… I did send a text to Ryan yesterday to remind his kids that winning a state championship is something that’s going to last forever for these kids and tie them together for the rest of their lives. We’ll forget who won state championships, but those kids will always remember and it’ll tie them into the future together.”

“At the end of the day, we’re into being a part of something, and that has been a key for me,” O’Neill said. “It’s been a long time to get to winning at this level, but I think when you make it about the enjoyment of the experience and when I can reach each individual player across the whole program, when that becomes the ideal goal, everything else comes together.”

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