Delco Christian program didn’t stay down for long

NEWTOWN SQUARE — The news wasn’t easy for coach Rob Atkins to deliver last fall. And while it wasn’t necessarily a surprise, the Delco Christian community wasn’t going to receive it with much joy.

For the fall of 2013, there would be no varsity boys soccer on Malin Road.

A combination of factors both foreseen (like a senior class with just one player and a junior class not large enough to compensate) and unforeseen (a few transfers out, plus a couple of injuries sprinkled in) forced Atkins and the athletic department into the uncomfortable realization that they lacked the interest and talent to field a varsity side.

So the difficult decision was made to place the varsity program in what they hoped was a one-year dormancy, fielding just a JV squad.

A year later, that challenge seems to be paying dividends.

Three weeks into the season, the Delco Christian team isn’t just reconstituted, but it’s flourishing. The Knights’ record stands at 3-4, including 2-2 in the Bicentennial League. And a year after barely scraping together a JV team, Atkins had sufficient interest to outfit a varsity and JV squad. That deliverance from the one-year hiatus is one more befitting the Delco Christian program, given its long history of success in the Class A ranks and its vibrant alumni group. After all, this is a program just three years removed from playing for a District One title.

While last year’s decision was difficult in light of the past, it was a necessity to cultivate the future. The conclusion reached by Atkins and his staff was primarily sought protect younger players who comprised a majority of the squad and who weren’t physically ready to shoulder the burden of a varsity schedule.

There were difficult conversations, especially with the lone senior on the team, goalkeeper Vann Sutphin. But Atkins regards Sutphin’s reaction to the news as emblematic of the team resilience.

“I had talked to him beforehand about it, and he handled it very well,’ Atkins said. “Some discouragement, but at the same time he knew that he was building into something bigger than just himself and his season. And that’s what we tried to communicate. This is more than just building your personal season; it’s about building a program that’s going to last longer than what you contribute just this year.’

Those players clearly of varsity caliber shifted more of their focus toward their club teams last fall. The sizeable proportion of Delco Christian players who also participate in club soccer is not only a luxury for a school its size, but further evidence that the program wouldn’t hibernate for long.

“It was just pretty much a development year,’ junior Nathan Daniel said. “We just worked hard and tried to get back into playing varsity this year. … It can be frustrating, but at the same time, it was good because we had the year to build and develop as players.’

For Atkins, discretion was the better part of valor. He knew that there was a promising amount of players in eighth grade that would join the high school ranks in a year. Adding them to the existing core of freshmen and sophomores — provided they could avoid a deluge of dumb-luck injuries and defections — would provide the varsity backbone for 2014 and the next several years. In time, those eighth-graders will be the seniors helping replenish the interest of younger kids to perpetuate the cycle.

The key facet in that plan was ensuring that the core of freshmen and sophomores didn’t end up so demoralized by an ill-fated varsity slate in 2013 that they would lose interest in the sport.

Atkins projected, based on the numbers he had coming back and the matriculation of middle schoolers, that he’d be looking at about 36 bodies to start the fall of 2014. When he broke camp just over a month ago with 33, he was ecstatic.

That turnout also owed to plenty of legwork over the summer on the part of Atkins, many of his returning veterans and the alumni network, as evidenced by the presence of several second-generation Knights on Atkins’ team.

“(It was) making sure I contacted all of the incoming ninth-graders and kids that were on the fence that were thinking about not coming out,’ Atkins said. “Just assuring them that we’re going to have a JV program, part of it is contingent on your being out here, and that’s going to play a huge part in developing the program throughout the years. I contacted all those kids throughout the summer. A couple of them that were on the fence and leaning towards not playing were convinced to play by my calling them and some of their peers calling them.’

“We worked it,’ Daniel said. “We tried our best to make it an inviting environment. And we tried to get as many guys out as we could to make it an environment like this.’

The effort has seemed worth it. The team has scored in all seven of its games, led by four goals from Jordan Dozier and three from Daniel Nichols. The Knights began the season with victories over Chichester and MaST Charter, then stemmed the tide of a four-game skid by beating Church Farm Tuesday.

That level of competitiveness demonstrates the potential that lay fallow for a season but has been resurrected this season.

“It’s nice because it’s my senior year,’ said Ryan Norton, who provided three assists in the win over Church Farm. “We actually have a chance to go do something. I get one last chance.’

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