When Brazil helped take an Island team to the NY State finals
The request by several Shelter Island School students to the Board of Education to bring back a long-dormant soccer program has re-kindled memories of a time when the small school was a powerhouse in the sport.
At the Jan. 17 Board of Education meeting, sophomore Harrison Weslek presented a proposal to consider implementing a soccer team. He told the Board that he knew of 22 students from grades 8 though 12 who were interested.
Many of his fellow students were with him to support his presentation. Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio and Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., expressed support for a program, noting that soccer also appeals to students who don’t have an interest in competing in sports already supported by the school.
In 1982, Shelter Island School’s soccer team went to the New York State finals in its division. And Brazilian soccer-god Pelé, who lived in East Hampton, was known to visit Shelter Island, and receive young Island players as guests.
Much of the success of the soccer program was due to another Brazilian immigrant, Luiz Coelho, who introduced the sport as an organized entity to the Island in the 1970s, first as pick-up games, then as a youth program, and finally as a varsity sport.
Athletic Director Henry Uhlein, at the school in the late 1970s, worked with Mr. Coelho on bringing high-level soccer to the Island.
Born in São Paulo in 1935, Mr. Coelho immigrated to the United states in 1964. An internationally known and honored sculptor and painter, he died in 2006. His wife Nidia, who lives on the Island, is an equally well-known and esteemed artist.
Several of those associated with Shelter Island’s glory years on the soccer field remembered those days and weighed in this week on the possibilities of bringing back school soccer.
Planning For The Long Term
Mr. Coelho brought his passion and knowledge for soccer as well as art to the Island. Islander Leslie Czeladko, a 1983 Shelter Island graduate, who played defense on the team that went to the finals, and is a member of the School’s Athletic Hall of Fame, told the Reporter this week, “During the summer, we had over 50 kids playing at Fiske Field. Luiz had us playing in the summer and fall and that’s why we ended up playing so well. You have to plan for the long term. A season or two will not make a great team or a great player. Starting young is the best way to create a great player.”
Mr. Czeladko, who is reckoned to be the best player the Island has produced — he was All-County and All-State in 1982 — believes the surest way for the school to kick-start a soccer program is for Island players to combine with other school teams.
“Since the school enrollment is small, getting the players would be difficult for a full-size team,” he said. “When I played, we had a core team of players that was very good, and the rest would fill in. At most we had just 17 players on the team.”
Chess As Opposed To Checkers
But they had an edge in Mr. Coelho, who introduced a way of playing that was mostly unfamiliar to Long Island squads.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Coelho told the Reporter that most area teams when he came on the scene were playing a “run-and-kick game,” meaning long passes followed by mad dashes after loose balls. “We played a different, possession-based game,” he added, meaning short passes in quick succession, control and strategy, playing chess on the field against opponents who were playing checkers.
“I made an effort to show the kids tapes of the best soccer teams in the world, including the Brazilian national team, to show them how the game was meant to be played,” Mr. Coelho said. “Other teams didn’t know how to handle our possession game. We were able to literally run circles around them.”
They could also play defense. The season the team went to the state finals, Shelter Island notched 10 shutouts.
In the Reporter article, Mr. Coelho noted that soccer became a popular sport in America due to the “Pelé phenomenon,” when the Brazilian star came to play for the New York Cosmos. Mr. Coelho on occasion took as many as 40 players to meet Pelé, and the star would come to the Island from his East Hampton home.
‘A Change In Philosophy’
Later in the 1980s, the number of students coming out for the sport declined and the program withered away until it was dropped. Mr. Coelho told the Reporter two decades ago that trying to recruit new players on the Island was a problem and, as he put it, there was “a change of philosophy” in the school’s athletic department with a heavier emphasis put on basketball.
Darrin Binder was a member of the 1982 team that went all the way to the state finals. He said this week that Mr. Coelho was “a great teacher and coach.”
It was Mr. Coehlo’s “enthusiasm” and dedication that brought kids out to the soccer field. He remembered the coach arranging for players to meet with Santos, the Brazilian professional team, which is one of the best in the world. “They played a full day with us and then we went back to Luiz and Nidia’s house,” he said.
When he was named to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013 — he holds the record for goals scored — Mr. Binder spoke of Mr. Coelho’s generosity of spirit, a man “who gave us every minute of every day.”
When Mr. Coelho moved on to coach at Southold High School, he was no longer here to inspire kids to play what’s known the world over as “the beautiful game.”
Mr. Binder said he was all in favor of re-starting the soccer program. “It will give kids another option” to play sports, he said.
There’s been a resurgence of interest, with pickup games at Fiske Field ongoing for the last several months. And with a growing school enrollment of Latino students — the game is revered in the Spanish-speaking world — there’s a chance the game might be back on the Island as a school-sponsored sport.
Jay Card Jr., a school Hall of Famer who lettered in three sports, grew up playing soccer in Southold. When his family moved to Shelter Island in the mid-1970s, he played for Henry Uhlein and Mr. Coelho. He remembers both men as “fabulous guys.”
Asked about the move to reinstate a soccer program, Mr. Card said he was “torn,” and noted that perhaps emphasis should be put on another sport, namely golf. “Golf is a sport you learn and can play all your life,” he said. “Soccer, not so much.”
But he added that soccer has multiple advantages, especially teaching athleticism, balance and how to receive contact, which translates well to other sports.
Former Athletic Director Uhlein said this week that it was promising that the idea for a soccer program at the school came from the students. “It was the students back then that wanted a program, and we got it,” Mr. Uhlein said. “And now it seems the kids are the ones who are in favor of this. The school should listen.”