We’ve seen some local high school coaching legends step down in recent years. A couple weeks ago, it was Oxford wrestling icon Scott Gold, and Avon Grove’s Eric Jackson certainly fits the criteria.
In 2001, Jackson started the Red Devils’ lacrosse program from scratch. Through his sheer force of will, Jackson built a state powerhouse in Southern Chester County that culminated with a state championship in 2017.
“To be honest, the highlight is the people,” Jackson said. “Winning a state championship is great, but the biggest things are the connections with the kids.
“I’m a very competitive person and I rarely get satisfied or content. But I did learn to really appreciate of those memories and cherish them.”
Jackson quietly stepped down late last year after 19 years at the helm. His longtime assistant, Brian Wallace, is stepping in, although his first season at the helm was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“For 19 seasons, Eric developed one of the most elite lacrosse programs in Pennsylvania,” Wallace said.
“We all loved playing for coach Jackson,” added senior All-American James Chastain. “He is always calm and collected.”
According to Jackson, he’s retiring from coaching in order to open up time for him to watch his son, Jake, play high school lacrosse. He is a freshman at West Chester Rustin, but like all student-athletes, the 2020 spring season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“A big part of it was that I didn’t want to miss seeing him play,” Jackson confirmed. “I’ve been preaching to parents that time goes fast and to enjoy it, and I think it was my time to reflect back on the speech I used to give.”
Jackson was a two-time All-American for West Chester when it was a Division II lacrosse program. He began his coaching career as an assistant at Upper Darby, was head coach at Westtown for two years and also an assistant at Unionville for a year, before starting the Avon Grove program.
“That’s what made this decision really difficult,” Jackson acknowledged. “I’m honored to have helped that program and the community, and to see it go from where were started to where it is now has been a long journey, but very rewarding.”
Avon Grove first fielded a varsity squad in 2002. Over the ensuing 18 seasons, the Red Devils won 235 games under Jackson, grabbed four Ches-Mont league titles, two District 1 crowns and made two appearances in the state title game. In 2014, Avon Grove fell to Penncrest in the final. In 2017, the Devils won it all.
“We have a great support,” Chastain said. “Starting with youth lacrosse, all the kids go to the games and really want to play varsity for Avon Grove. We have the best student section of anywhere I’ve seen. It’s just the culture of the program, and it really makes a difference.”
There are lacrosse hotspots in the region like the Main Line and prep schools. But Jackson nurtured a non-traditional place like Avon Grove into a powerhouse. And it all started with a vibrant youth program that Jackson started, and has been churning out talent for many years.
“It’s a different culture and I don’t think there are many places in the state like it – only a handful,” he said. “It’s been really special to start it and see it grow.
“The community just really embraced the sport. Looking back to the first year, not many people even knew what lacrosse was and we had some struggles. But eventually the community bought in and we have some great youth coaches through the years.
“The connection between the youth league and the high school has always been a huge part of our success. When I started, that was the first thing I wanted to do was to get the youth program up and running. We have a feeder system that we worked very closely with, where the kids growing up wanted to play for Avon Grove High School.”
A resident of West Chester, Jackson was in his mid-20s when he started the program. Now just 46, he is stepping back — but not necessarily out — of coaching for good.
“I certainly think I have more to give,” he said. “I don’t look at this as being completely done with coaching. I love working with kids and teaching. I love the sport of lacrosse. I do see myself somehow staying involved. I don’t really have a plan. I just want to be a dad for a while.
“I was planning on being a huge cheerleader for (Avon Grove) this spring. They were going to do very well. It breaks my heart to see that the seniors are not going to get a chance. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Wallace, who played for Jackson at Avon Grove in the early days, added:
“Eric always felt that you build success by working hard, being a family on and off the field, and having fun. If Eric taught me anything, it’s that success is not given, it’s earned.
“I remember when we won the 2017 State Championship and not thirty minutes after we won, Eric was talking about the off season and what we could do to get better for the next year.”