NEWBURYPORT — In his 18 previous seasons of coaching Newburyport varsity girls soccer, Robb Gonnam has always been a step ahead, a major reason the Clippers have one of the proudest soccer traditions around the state.
Knowing that there were fewer coaching days ahead than there are in the rear view mirror, Gonnam lured Kevin Sheridan away from the Newburyport boys program two years ago to begin in the girls program with the idea that Sheridan would some day take over the girls varsity team.
To continue that natural progression, Gonnam brought Sheridan to the varsity a year ago, and then approached the school late in the fall about the idea of the two coaches becoming co-coaches in 2010. The move was approved by the school system in the spring and for the price of one head coach — the two coaches currently split what would have been Gonnam's fee for the position — Newburyport officially has co-head coaches.
"There's a number of reasons; first of all, at some point I'm going to give this up or take a lesser role, and more importantly, I knew there were a lot of young kids coming in," said Gonnam, who along with Sheridan is now low man on the Newburyport coaching totem pole in terms of pay. "It's very difficult as one head coach to give attention and hard to work with the goalkeepers and work with the field players.
"Compared to football, football has defensive coaches, line coaches, quarterback coaches, they get coaches for coaches and there is an advantage to that. The kids get more individual training than they've had at the youth levels. They need it at high school because the kids aren't always focused or concentrated," explained Gonnam, who has suffered from severe arthritis since he was 12 years old, a condition he said has limited his coaching capabilities at times.
"In high school, if you give them a chance to be lazy, they'll tend to be lazy just by human nature, so this was an effort to help integrate younger kids into the team and help give specialized training."
For Sheridan, who left the boys program because Shawn Bleau — the current head coach of the Newburyport boys soccer team — was essentially in Sheridan's current position two years ago in the boys program as first deputy to former Clipper coach Dave Greenblott, it was the perfect opportunity.
"I was presented with the opportunity at the end of the season (last year), and I was pretty excited about it. One of the reasons I came over to work with the girls sub-varsity program was that I was thinking at some point I would take over the program," admitted Sheridan, who said he has worked a lot with Eleni Kacher in net and the defense thus far.
"So far it's been great, it's a good experience learning a lot from Robb and it's good to work with the older girls. I've been learning a lot of the drills and just some game scenarios and things like that, so it's been nice to have him as a mentor.
"We talk before and after practice in terms of what the plans we need to work on for the training sessions, what things we need to work on depending on what the game is coming up, and what the previous game was," Sheridan said. "We talk starting lineups, positives and negatives of each player at each position, and we do a good job so far of running things by each other and talking about the decisions we make.
The youthful Sheridan — a former goalkeeper for Elmira College in New York — was also a logical choice to succeed Gonnam because of his knowledge of the game, enthusiasm and desire, and because of his position as a math teacher at the high school. Gonnam, who owns his own business, is not in the high school on a daily basis.
"I knew since (former assistant) Ken Siegel was leaving it would be nice having someone in the school that can keep track of the girls grade-wise and what's going on in the school," said Gonnam, who added he does not have a timetable for when he'd like to step down. "I kind of disassociate myself from the whole thing and just coach, and it's nice to have that available.
"He doesn't necessarily have the coaching experience I do or someone that has been around as long as I do, but the desire is there, so the rest just follows naturally," continued Gonnam, who said he still has the passion to coach with some 20 teams between youth soccer, club soccer and high school still under his belt. "That's the reason for getting us together. He sees how different situations are handled and what results different drills have, and he provides input. Again, the kids are really the beneficiary, which is the end purpose of the whole thing."
Responsible for building a program that competes for league titles, North sectionals and state championships, Gonnam also wanted Sheridan to share the experience at the top level and be a part of the tradition rather than walking into it blind.
"When I work with the kids at the youth level, there is a very high demand placed on them not to perform, but to play with passion and intelligence and good decision-making, and ultimately that breeds successful games," said Gonnam, who said Sheridan shares the sincere concern to develop the girls into young, responsible women in addition to making them better soccer players.
"You're going to win a lot of games if you bring that to the table and I wanted him to understand at what level the kids are coming in and what I expect of them once they are here. I realize we are a smaller school, but the demand is still there to be successful to maintain that tradition.
"That tradition is important to me. It's been 18 years in the making and it is very important to me that it continues, that the system doesn't go down the chute while we start over," Gonnam reiterated. "There should be no start over, it's just one year after the other. I've had some ups and downs, but there should never be a 'We've got to rebuild this thing from the ground up' type of deal."