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Going Green: Hanover’s Soccer Trip to Ireland Becomes an Education

  • Hanover Salt Hill goalkeeper Konrad Mitchell sets himself for a Lucan cross during the teams' opening Macron Galway Cup match on Aug. 7. Hanover played to a 0-0 draw during the weeklong tournament that featured three age-group divisions filled with clubs from around the world.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph

    Hanover Salt Hill goalkeeper Konrad Mitchell sets himself for a Lucan cross during the teams' opening Macron Galway Cup match on Aug. 7. Hanover played to a 0-0 draw during the weeklong tournament that featured three age-group divisions filled with clubs from around the world.
    Rob Grabill photograph

  • Members of the Hanover Salt Hill soccer team get a closeup view of the Cliffs of Moher — and their 700-foot drop into the Atlantic Ocean — during the first day of the squad's weeklong visit to Ireland earlier this month.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph

    Members of the Hanover Salt Hill soccer team get a closeup view of the Cliffs of Moher — and their 700-foot drop into the Atlantic Ocean — during the first day of the squad's weeklong visit to Ireland earlier this month.
    Rob Grabill photograph

  • Salthill Devon director of coaching Tony Mannion, top left, holds a training session with the Hanover Salt Hill team during its weeklong visit to the Macron Galway Cup tournament earlier this month.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph

    Salthill Devon director of coaching Tony Mannion, top left, holds a training session with the Hanover Salt Hill team during its weeklong visit to the Macron Galway Cup tournament earlier this month.
    Rob Grabill photograph

  • The Hanover Salt Hill team poses for a photograph in one of the Salthill Devon Football Club's cage-enclosed practice fields.<br/>Courtesy photograph

    The Hanover Salt Hill team poses for a photograph in one of the Salthill Devon Football Club's cage-enclosed practice fields.
    Courtesy photograph

  • Hanover Salt Hill goalkeeper Konrad Mitchell sets himself for a Lucan cross during the teams' opening Macron Galway Cup match on Aug. 7. Hanover played to a 0-0 draw during the weeklong tournament that featured three age-group divisions filled with clubs from around the world.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph
  • Members of the Hanover Salt Hill soccer team get a closeup view of the Cliffs of Moher — and their 700-foot drop into the Atlantic Ocean — during the first day of the squad's weeklong visit to Ireland earlier this month.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph
  • Salthill Devon director of coaching Tony Mannion, top left, holds a training session with the Hanover Salt Hill team during its weeklong visit to the Macron Galway Cup tournament earlier this month.<br/>Rob Grabill photograph
  • The Hanover Salt Hill team poses for a photograph in one of the Salthill Devon Football Club's cage-enclosed practice fields.<br/>Courtesy photograph

On the first day, Rob Grabill nearly freaked out.

In normal circumstances, the drive from Shannon Airport in Ireland’s County Clare to the west coast city of Galway takes a little over an hour. When Grabill, Hanover High’s boys soccer coach, recently accompanied a group of 16 teenagers to the Emerald Isle for a tournament, he wanted his charges to absorb as much culture as football.

That culture began with a front-row view to a 700-foot drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

“We went from the airport and we took a tour around the west coast of Ireland, and we came to the famous Cliffs of Moher,” Grabill described last week of one stop during the group’s weeklong visit, centered on an appointment in the Macron Galway Cup soccer tournament. “The Cliffs of Moher include this walk along the edge. There are no fences. I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m here with guys whose prefrontal cortexes haven’t quite developed. Oh my lord.’ And like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, they have signs — call the Samaritans. Once every two weeks, someone goes off.

“It was a dry day, and there wasn’t much of a wind, and I was such a nervous wreck. They were crossing me and begging to come back. But they had such great maturity the whole trip.”

From the tourist perspective, Grabill had nothing to worry about. From the soccer standpoint, he had bigger concerns.

The Galway Cup is the pride and joy of the Salthill Devon Football Club; it has drawn high-level competition in three age groups from around the world for a decade. Professional clubs in four countries — Israel (Maccabi Haifa), Mexico (Chivas), England (Scunthorpe United, Ipswich Town) and the United States (D.C United) — sent academy teams filled with their best young athletes, most of whom aspire to playing careers.

“(We were) told, right from the beginning, even if we brought over an all-varsity team, we’d get killed,” Grabill noted. “We brought over a team with seven varsity players and five jayvee players. Four of the kids we brought over were freshmen last year.”

So, really, staring down the Cliffs of Moher wasn’t Hanover’s real worry.

When it came to the soccer, Grabill’s group was staring up.

Grabill and Tom Johnson go way back. Now a coach with the Seacoast United club program in Epping, Johnson used to cross swords with Grabill’s Marauders when he coached at Oyster River High. Until earlier this month, though, the two had never connected in Johnson’s regular line of work.

Johnson is director of Atlantic Crossing, a company that arranges trips for American soccer-playing youths abroad. The Galway Cup has been a regular destination. In January, Johnson notified Grabill that he’d be sending a group to Galway in August; Grabill, in turn, opened the trip to anyone willing to pay $3,000 to cross the ocean for a different sort of soccer experience.

“First off, I considered it as a preseason kind of opportunity for the majority of our team,” said senior Luke Strohbehn, who will be a Hanover co-captain this fall. “I personally thought it would be a good chance for me to start my captaincy role, so I could learn to be a leader before the season started.”

“All of a sudden,” Grabill said, “it occurred to me, ‘Wow, maybe I should go, too, just for the fun of it.’ ”

Fun meant approaching Hanover’s Salt Hill Pub before leaving town, seeking sponsorship. (The restaurant agreed to help with uniforms, all black, in exchange for a logo on the shirts.) It also meant exposure to Johnson’s many contacts within Galway, a city of 75,000 tucked inside the north shore of Galway Bay.

The squad bunked at a dormitory complex next to the National University of Ireland. Downtown resided a short walk away. When not on a training field, Grabill and company received daily history lessons.

“How many times in your life do you get a chance to go to a foreign country … to see a country for what it really is?” Grabill asked. “The last night, we went to this concert called Trad on the Prom. All the best in Irish music were there, all the top performers from Lord of the Dance, from Riverdance, from the Chieftains. Even if you like Jay-Z and that ilk, when you see great music done by the best people in the world, your eyes are opened.

“The guys, they were very receptive to this. They would pay attention when we went on these guided tours of Galway and see these 12th century buildings and see some of the history. It’s pretty compelling stuff.”

As is the soccer.

Johnson provided a coach for the Hanover Salt Hill team in Brian Dougher, a college coach from Maine. Once in Galway, Grabill’s crew fell under the critical guidance of Tony Mannion, Salthill Devon FC’s director of coaching and a one-time coach of Ireland’s junior national squad. “A soccer training session with Tony Mannion,” Grabill noted in an email home, “is the equivalent of a basketball training session with John Wooden.”

Even before taking the field for its first Galway Cup match, Hanover received an empathic, if unsparing, Mannion review through daily workouts leading up to the tournament.

“Personally, I very much enjoyed it,” Strohbehn admitted. “Like Rob, he’s very direct. He would tell you what you did wrong, but instantly he would tell you how to change and fix it. The kids seemed to be picking up what he was teaching very quickly.”

Hanover’s teams historically do well in the high school season, and players typically continue that excellence with club teams in the spring. Happily leaving the coaching to Mannion and Dougher, Grabill felt the critical message came in handy.

“There will be an incalculable benefit” this fall, Grabill said. “I think we squeezed out a lot of that Hanover arrogance.”

The Galway Cup competition eliminated what little may have remained.

The whole of Hanover Salt Hill’s U17 opposition consisted of county all-star teams from across Ireland. The team played four group matches, opening with a 0-0 draw with Lucan U17s before dropping games to CCFC (2-0), Foyle Harps (6-0) and Salthill Devon’s U17s (6-0) in the tourney’s 50-minute-game format. Hanover closed with a 3-1 loss to SDFC’s U16s in the playoff for ninth and 10th place, finally breaking onto the scoreboard on a second-half hustle goal from Casey Starr.

“The Salthill U17 team had a player that was being watched by everyone, so all the scouts were at that game,” Grabill said. “We knew we were the Christians being led out to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum. We were looking up top in the stands for people with thumbs up or thumbs down.”

Part of the test came in roster makeup. Grabill opened the trip to anyone who wanted to go; the 13 Hanover kids who came along will be split evenly between varsity and junior varsity this fall. (Hartford High’s Mitchell Kelly and two Johnson acquaintances from Maine filled out the roster.)

The Irish club soccer approach, particularly for the Galway Cup, was markedly different. American schoolboy soccer is, in Grabill’s words, “a means to an end,” an element of the educational process. The Irish club system bears a singular playing focus.

“They have more accurate passes,” Strohbehn noted. “They decide what to do with the ball before they get it, and the decisions they make are much better than the ones you might see here in the United States. To top it off, most of them were physically in shape or faster and bigger than the majority of our team.”

Now back home, Grabill and his Marauders begin fall workouts today and will once again be a favorite to compete for an NHIAA Division I state championship as the leaves turn brown and the temperatures dip. He believes there will be concrete benefits from the trip — goalkeeper Konrad Mitchell’s play despite occasional bombardment; older players looking out for younger both on and off the field; learning from and identifying with a foreign culture.

“We learned a lot of history, and that’s important because that’s part of the world, too,” Grabill said. “I’m glad it wasn’t all soccer. I’m glad we made it over and back alive and in one piece. … We were something of a curiosity. I think we reinforced some stereotypes about America.

“We reinforced the stereotype that Americans are good blokes,” Grabill added with a grin, “and we reinforced the stereotype that Americans need to stick to basketball and football.”

That’ll never happen in Hanover. But every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to try and scale the occasional cliff.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.