NETHER PROVIDENCE — Fifth-grade Nate Perrins didn’t fully appreciate the message or who was delivering it. Only in time would it fully sink in.
Perrins hoped his group of friends on the Nether United U-11s to U-13s teams would grow together, someday comprising the nucleus of Strath Haven’s storied high school program. As for the coach, well, at that point, he was little more than a teammate’s father; he was Larsen’s dad, and his wisdom sunk in.
“They really instilled it in us when we were younger to always play together,” Perrins said this week. “And they knew we were going to go to high school together.”
In retrospect, the source of that tutelage would grow more poignant. Larsen’s dad was John Hackworth, who at that point had been the manager of the Philadelphia Union, had coached the U.S. Under-17 squad and been an assistant for the senior national team, who stayed in Philly after the Union let him go in 2014. Larsen, a senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and a UNC-Asheville commit, grew up a close friend of Perrins and many members of the nucleus of the 2018 Panthers squad.
Even when the Hackworths moved on from the school district — Hackworth is the coach of USL champion Louisville City FC; all three of his sons attended Strath Haven at some point, though not all played varsity — the lessons Perrins learned from John have endured.
“I may have taken it for granted because I didn’t know what it meant at that time,” Perrins said. “But now I’m really appreciative of that, and he taught me a lot of things. I wouldn’t be the player that I am today without him.”
The trip to the past indelibly resonates to the present for Perrins and his Panthers. The team made a historic run through the 2018 season, winning the District 1 Class 3A final and reaching the PIAA final, the program’s seventh state final and first since 2001. The primary driver for that success was a collective toughness that made the Panthers a nearly impossible postseason out. That cohesion traces to players’ youth days, under the guidance of Hackworth and others.
“This team has a lot of resilience,” Perrins said. “We’ll always keep fighting, and I think that showed. … It proves that we will never put our head down and just keep fighting.”
It also helped that they had Perrins, who scored 28 goals to go with 10 assists in a prolific season. That’s why Perrins is the 2018 Daily Times Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
Joining him on the first team are the Episcopal Academy trio of Trevor Manion, Harrison Malone and Sam Wilson; the Haverford School duo of Griffin Wada and Will Micheletti; Radnor stalwarts Evan Majercak and Eliot Hayes; Garnet Valley defender Jared Scheffler; Bonner & Prendergast midfielder/defender Andrew Markopoulos; Haverford midfielder Will Gardner and Penn Wood forward Romario Sterling.
Malone and Perrins are each making their second appearances. Seniors hauled down 11 spots, with the junior Manion the only underclassman. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
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The Panthers approached the postseason looking like anything but a budding state finalist.
Forget that they tied with Haverford for fifth in the Central League. Knowing they were locked into the second seed in the District 1 Class 3A tournament, they entered the finale against Penn Wood with little to play for … and promptly got smacked, 6-2, by a Patriots team needing a win to sneak into the District 1 4A field. Add in an early injury and coach Ryan O’Neill felt it best to throttle back and rest his regulars.
The result wasn’t indicative of his team, Perrins knew. But saying that and internalizing that message across 20-plus players are two different pursuits, which is where the resilience reserves clicked in.
The response to that message was instantaneous in the postseason. Perrins scored in a 4-1 win over Upper Moreland. He tallied five goals — including a four-minute natural hat trick — to blitz undermanned Upper Perkiomen, 10-1. That statement win permanently banished the travails of an uneven regular season.
“After the 10-1 win, I knew that we could do what we did,” Perrins said. “I knew this team had fight, and we never stopped fighting. That’s the one thing that really made me proud this year.”
Perrins didn’t stop, either, accentuating his flair for the dramatic. He scored twice, including the overtime game-winner, to beat top-seeded Holy Ghost Prep in the district final despite the Panthers twice coughing up leads.
In the state tournament opener against Mechanicsburg, the Panthers trailed into the 74th minute. Then Perrins knotted the game at one and side-volleyed home the OT clincher. He pumped home the first two goals in a 5-1 thrashing of District 4 champ Athens, which had only conceded five goals all season, and supplied the game-winner in the semifinal triumph over Archbishop Wood, in which Haven trailed 2-0.
“I think showing them how good we could be really brought us in together and it brought us together as a team,” Perrins said. “Seeing how we can compete with a Lower Merion kind of brought everyone together, seeing that we really could make a run this year.”
Adversity is baked into Perrins’ soccer journey. He tore ligaments in his knee early in his sophomore campaign, costing him nearly a year on the sidelines. He still sported a heavy knee brace that he only began to shed late this season, two years post-surgery.
Perrins, who committed to Catholic University during the postseason, knew how that adversity informed his hunger. The core of the team felt it as well.
“I do think to a degree it did play into that,” he said. “They know this is my No. 1 sport and I’d do anything for them, and they’d do anything for me now.”
Surmounting such obstacles eased Perrins’ ability to contend with the trifles of a season. Like the Panthers allowing 10 goals in consecutive losses to Conestoga and Radnor. Or when hulking center back Ben Wainfan left a game with Central League runner-up Lower Merion and Perrins dropped into central defense to preserve a 2-1 win.
The reward for his perseverance was a special season where Haven scored in every game but one and Perrins tallied 14 goals in seven playoff contests. That the ending, a 4-0 loss to West Allegheny, didn’t follow the script, seems more like a footnote than a defining conclusion.
“It meant the world, man,” Perrins said. “Obviously we lost in the state championship, but it didn’t take away from what we accomplished during the year. A district title is nothing to look down upon. It’ll always be in the high school on a banner. We’ll always have our names in the gym.”