NEW PALESTINE — In a way, they both feel lucky.
When New Palestine Anytime Fitness manager Jeff Burger bumped into the Dragons’ athletics director Al Cooper, all he thought he would be doing was promoting his gym, not submitting a resume for a job he didn’t even know was vacant.
And when Cooper began talking with Burger, he was unaware he actually was conducting his first interview with the next Dragons boys head soccer coach
Fortunately for both, that is exactly how things unfolded.
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“We got to talking, and it comes up that he used to be a soccer coach,” Cooper said. “And I thought, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a soccer coach.'”
As the conversation wore on, Cooper learned that Burger had been named state coach of the year twice each in Wisconsin and Kansas and had worked at schools the same size or larger than New Palestine.
He also learned Burger played college soccer at Taylor University (1985 graduate) and professionally in Honduras as a goalkeeper.
Most recently Burger coached at Valley Center High School, near Wichita Kansas, where his girls team went undefeated in the regular season and came within a game of winning the Class 5A (737 to 1,332 students) state championship.
Burger, who coached both boys and girls teams at Valley Center, has twice been named the Wichita metro coach of the year as well as conference coach of the year six times.
Needless to say Cooper was impressed with the resume, and a short while later, Burger had the job.
“It was kind of funny,” said Burger, a New Castle graduate who had not lived in Indiana in more than 30 years. “I came back here to take care of my mother, and I knew I had to get a job, but I wasn’t looking to coach. … I have Google alerts that let me know about job openings, and coaching positions wasn’t even on there. … But it’s like I tell people: I’ve retired from coaching three times, but I always end up back in the soup.”
Burger replaces Bobby Holden, who in his final season, coached the Dragons to their first sectional championship in five years. Holden stepped down to focus on his club and travel soccer programs.
However, Burger, 52, said he does not feel pressure to repeat as champion, because he’s never believed winning should be a primary focus.
“Winning is not the goal. Winning is a byproduct,” said Burger, whose new team will lose nine starters to graduation. “It comes along with a good staff and good players who strive to perform at the highest level. That’s what I teach. In my mind, you can win and still be a failure and lose and still be a success. It’s about hard work. I’ve had a team win 7-0, and I’ve been so mad I wouldn’t get on the bus. I’ve also had teams lose, but I thought they performed at their highest level, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Burger already has filled out his coaching staff. He has brought on 2009 New Palestine graduate Justin Sass, who played collegiately at Butler and Evansville, as well as 2012 New Palestine graduate Ty Fidler.
“Coaching as long as I have, and hopefully I haven’t stopped learning. That’s why I have Justin and Ty,” Burger said. “They have local roots. Justin’s college experience will be a huge factor.
“I come here with nothing set in concrete. If they (Sass and Fidler) come in thinking that things are predetermined — how we’re going to play, what everyone’s going to do — they’re doomed. Let’s look at the kids we have and design something that’s fit for them. We have to adapt to the level of players we have. I’ll be leaning a lot on Justin and Ty. I’m excited about that – a couple of guys that can still probably play pretty well.”
Burger is not kidding when he said nothing is concrete. He said no player has a spot guaranteed, and all players will be subject to his “scouting combine.”
Burger plans to put the Dragons through a series of physical tests that determine a player’s speed, agility, ball-handling prowess and overall athletic ability. He records the information, inputs it into his computer — where he has a personalized ranking formula — and the computer determines, subjectively, who his best players are.
The data, Burger said, is an effective tool for, among other things, helping coaches determine where players belong on the field, how to game plan for opponents and as an explanation for those athletes who think they should be receiving more playing time.
“In the 20-plus years I’ve coached,” Burger explained, “kids who win starting spots almost every time almost every test out in the top 20. The numbers almost always works out. There are exceptions, but the math really does not lie.”
Being that he has only met his team once, last week in a brief meeting at the school’s cafeteria, Burger would not speculate about his expectations for the season, saying it was far too early to make projections.
He did say, though, that he has begun assembling files on teams around the area. He also plans to speak with Holden about his current crop of players, the Hoosier Heritage Conference and the other teams he will run into this season.
“My only goal right now is to build a program that can sustain success,” Burger said. “The way I can do that is to get to these kids to play as the highest possible level, to commit to improvement. Because once you do that, you starting winning the ones you weren’t supposed to.”
Another change on the pitch
Burger will not be the only new leading man walking the soccer fields next season. As previously reported, Mt. Vernon’s Matt Mayhew takes over for six-year coach Aaron Britt, who resigned shortly after last season to spend more time with his family.
A longtime Britt assistant, Mayhew — like Burger — already is preparing for next season.
For the time since Mayhew can remember, the Marauders have instituted a weightlifting program. For two days a week since early December, about 25 to 30 Marauders have showed up to work on improving their bodies.
“The current sophomore class and current juniors felt we needed to start,” Mayhew said. “We had a rough season last year at 7-9. It’s not where we wanted to be. And some of things we saw we needed to do to get better was to be bigger and stronger guys.”
Along with many of his players competing on club teams, Mayhew thinks his team will be more than ready for next season, where they hope to dethrone Pendleton Heights, a team that has charged through the Hoosier Heritage Conference the past two seasons unbeaten.
“That’s the level we’re looking to be at,” Mayhew said. “We want to be able to beat good teams like them.”
Name: Jeff Burger
High School: New Castle (1981)
College: Taylor University (1985)
Children: John, 29; Bethany, 28; Brittany, 28; Brianna, 22; Brooke, 22; Brielle, 17; Baylee, 16.
Most recent soccer position: Varsity head boys and girls soccer coach, Valley Center High School (Wichita, Kan.).
Name: Matt Mayhew
Coaching: Recently hired as Mt. Vernon boys soccer head coach
High School: Hamilton Southeastern (1992)
College: Indiana University (1997)
Children: Current Marauders Bobby (15) and Timmy (18) Clone
Most recent soccer position: Assistant boys coach, Mt. Vernon, 10 years. Previous, Hamilton Southeastern assistant coach.