Nathalie LaRoche didn’t plan on coaching soccer this fall.
In fact, she wasn’t focused on doing much else but continue to recover from severe injuries – including a fractured pelvis as well as hip and back problems – suffered in a car accident more than a year ago.
In fact, the injuries had already caused her to take a medical leave from her job as a Grade 5 teacher at Peace Arch Elementary, and had put her own athletic pursuits, including running and playing women’s soccer, on hold, too.
But then she was moved by the words of her teenage son, Maxime, who expressed disappointment that Earl Marriott Secondary – for the second year in a row and the third year in the last four – would not be able to field a senior boys soccer team because they did not have a coach.
“Last year, they tried to have a team, but things just kind of fell apart,” LaRoche explained. “I was involved in a lot of sports at Peace Arch (Elementary), but this wasn’t something I planned on doing. But then my son said to me, ‘There’s so much potential in this soccer team.’
“I just thought that, I’m still off work and I have a bit of time between treatments and appointments, and I’d want to watch the games anyway because my son is on the team, so I can do it.”
Though Marriott’s would-be team did not play last year – or in Grade 9 as first-year juniors – the core group had found success as a junior team in 2009, making it all the way to Fraser Valley finals before losing in overtime on an unfortunate own-goal.
A few days later, LaRoche, not wanting to see her son or his Mariners teammates disappointed again, volunteered to take the helm of the team, but with a catch: she would be the coach in title only. The rest was up to the boys.
“I wanted to make it clear right away that I could not physically coach. I can’t be out there on the field at practice, I don’t move equipment or nets or anything like that – I told the boys they would have to do these things if they wanted to play,” she explained.
“I’ve played soccer all my life, but I told them that, at this point, they probably know more about the game than I do anyway, so go ahead, have your team.”
LaRoche organized tryouts, and took the lead in choosing the final roster, but the day-to-day coaching duties – including running practices and deciding on in-game strategy – were soon taken over by, of all people, one of the players, Grade 12 centre-midfielder Sean Einarsson, one of the team’s most experienced players.
“It was a gradual thing… no one appointed me. It was just little things I’d kind of take control of, and it went from there,” Einarsson, who plays men’s soccer with Surrey United, told Peace Arch News.
“It’s been pretty smooth. I’ve known these guys for so long – we’ve went to school together for five years, played together… it’s been really good.”
LaRoche said having Sean as the de facto leader of the team was a no-brainer, considering his talent and experience, and she says there’s been no issues between Sean and his peers, who are suddenly taking instruction from one of their own.
“We haven’t had any problems. None at all,” she said.
“They all have one thing in common – they want to win. And I think they really look up to Sean because they know how good he is, how much experience he has. He really is an amazing player, so when he talks, they listen, and want to learn.”
Through five games, EMS has two wins, one loss and a pair of ties, with the most impressive result coming earlier this month, when they tied first-place South Delta 2-2; until that game, South Delta had not allowed a single goal against.
“That’s the game where Sean really really came out of his shell,” LaRoche said.
“At halftime, he pulled the guys together and said ‘Look, this is not working.’ And he changed the formation, moved the boys around, and after taking a few minutes to adjust, we just finished so strong. Sean was coaching them on the field, telling them where to go, what to do… he was very vocal.”
Though Einarsson says the transition to player-coach has been a smooth one, he admitted it’s quite a change from playing with Surrey United, where he’s one of those league’s youngest players.
“Playing with the men, I’m in my learning stage, so everyone’s talking to me on the field, trying to help me out – I’m the one being coached,” he explained. “But then I come here, and it’s the opposite perspective. I just try to apply what I’m told playing with the men’s team to these games.”
His ability to balance both playing and coaching has impressed EMS athletic director Adam Roberts, who said it takes a special kind of player to do what Einarsson’s doing.
“Sometimes, you’ll have older students helping coach younger ones at the same school, but it’s very rare to have someone coaching their peers,” he said.
“Being a player-coach in any sport, at any level, is really hard. You have to have a lot of maturity and most important, the respect of your peers, and Sean has that.
“He’s very well thought of here at the school, and it’s really cool to see him doing so well.”
The Mariners beat Elgin Park 4-0 last week at EMS, and began playoffs Tuesday against Abbotsford, but results were not available by Peace Arch News deadlines.