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One for the Ages: Youth, Experience Converge in Soccer Rivalry

  • Rivenbdell boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher, right, and Thetford coach Sean Fitzgerald, left, shake hands after Rivendell's 3-1 win in Orford on Saturday. Thatcher is in his 42nd year coaching in Orford; Fitzgerald is in his first at Thetford.  Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Rivenbdell boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher, right, and Thetford coach Sean Fitzgerald, left, shake hands after Rivendell's 3-1 win in Orford on Saturday. Thatcher is in his 42nd year coaching in Orford; Fitzgerald is in his first at Thetford. Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford boys soccer coach Sean Fitzgerald shouts to his team to get back on defense during a game at Rivendell Academy in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013. Fitzgerald is in his first year coaching at Thetford Academy. Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Thetford boys soccer coach Sean Fitzgerald shouts to his team to get back on defense during a game at Rivendell Academy in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013. Fitzgerald is in his first year coaching at Thetford Academy. Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher is in his42nd year coaching in Orford, originally at Orford High School and now at Rivendell Academy. Thatcher takes in the field during a game with Thetford in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher is in his42nd year coaching in Orford, originally at Orford High School and now at Rivendell Academy. Thatcher takes in the field during a game with Thetford in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rivenbdell boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher, right, and Thetford coach Sean Fitzgerald, left, shake hands after Rivendell's 3-1 win in Orford on Saturday. Thatcher is in his 42nd year coaching in Orford; Fitzgerald is in his first at Thetford.  Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Thetford boys soccer coach Sean Fitzgerald shouts to his team to get back on defense during a game at Rivendell Academy in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013. Fitzgerald is in his first year coaching at Thetford Academy. Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher is in his42nd year coaching in Orford, originally at Orford High School and now at Rivendell Academy. Thatcher takes in the field during a game with Thetford in Orford Saturday, September 28, 2013.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

Orford — Rivendell Academy boys soccer coach Bob Thatcher turns 65 today. Thetford Academy counterpart Sean Fitzgerald is 25.

Thatcher has been coaching the Raptors (previously Orford High School) since 1972. Fitzgerald accepted his first varsity post with the Panthers this year.

The difference in experience between the coaches was on display Saturday as the teams squared off in a rematch of an opening day 2-2 draw in Thetford.

With the Raptors leading 3-1 during the final five minutes of an intense battle, Thetford was awarded a free kick in the Rivendell zone.

Thatcher didn’t agree with the call. And though the Panthers didn’t score on the play, Thatcher still let his opinion be known.

“That was an erroneous call,” he calmly said to the official, who trotted by the Raptor bench on the ensuing possession.

Moments later, a Rivendell player was tripped up in the Thetford end and issued his own free kick. As Thatcher had, Fitzgerald disagreed with the call — but he was much more vocal about it.

“That’s absolutely bogus!” he called out to the officials while pacing the sideline.

Thatcher understood well the emotion — and the need to contain it. He also understood it’s only a matter of time before Fitzgerald learns to communicate with referees more quietly.

“You learn to talk to them without irritating them,” said Thatcher, who remains at the place he was hired after he graduated from Boston University 41 years ago. “You learn to pipe down, first of all because (officials) are good guys, but also because if you start yelling at the officials, your players get riled up and start to lose their focus.

“You want them concentrated on the ball, not what the officials are doing. You want them focused on what they can control.”

Thatcher never expected to coach soccer when he was brought in to be Orford High’s athletic director in 1972. In fact, he was against the idea. A four-year football player at Acton-Boxboro (Mass.) High, Thatcher had never so much as watched a game of soccer.

“My coach (Ed Leary) used to say, ‘If you can’t handle it here, go play soccer with the girls,’ ” Thatcher recalled. “I told the (Orford High) School Board, I didn’t want to coach soccer. But they needed someone and the principal (Bill Ellithorpe) told me I was coaching soccer, so I did.”

Back in Acton, Leary was proud Thatcher had taken on the task.

“I didn’t want to admit to him that I was coaching soccer, but he was very encouraging about it,” Thatcher said. “He said, ‘Bob, you need to coach. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, just do your best.’ ”

With Thatcher learning the game as he went, the Wildcats failed to earn a winning record during his first eight seasons. Things began to turn around in the early 1980s, when the program produced its first All-State player in Jeff Huntington. (Thatcher has since coached two of Huntington’s sons, including current junior striker Kolin Huntington).

Orford averaged double-digit wins through most of the 80s, reaching as far as the NHIAA Class S semifinals while Thatcher learned more and more about the game through experience — and his peers.

He turned often to soccer maven Rob Grabill, who returned to the Upper Valley in 1988 after an eight-year stint leading the men’s program at New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University). On his way to and from his job at Camp Pemigewassett in Wentworth, N.H., Grabill would stop at Orford High to help Thatcher out.

“My teams were all gun-and-run when I first started, and a lot of teams played that way,” Thatcher said. “It was much more north-south (oriented). As the game evolved and teams started playing possession soccer, I spent a lot of time studying the game. I talked to (Grabill) a lot, because I knew he coached such a quality brand of the game.”

Today, Thatcher’s Rivendell teams are perennial contenders in Vermont Division III, going 62-21-4 (.713) since 2008 and reaching the semis twice in the last three years.

As much motivator as tactician, Thatcher reminded Rivendell’s half-dozen seniors that it would be their final game against rival Thetford (barring a playoff match up) on Saturday. The team responded, scoring twice on the game’s first 20 minutes and playing inspired throughout the day.

“He’s been around the game so long, he knows what we’re capable of and how to get us to win,” said co-captain Luke Bell. “He really got it to sink in that it was the last time we’ll ever play Thetford, and to think about how we wanted to remember that.

“He just really understands the personalities of his players.”

Fitzgerald played soccer at Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) High, a school of more than 2,100 students that plays in the Empire State’s competitive Division AA. The forward/midfielder went on to play at Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Community College and Castleton (Vt.) State College.

While working to instill his own coaching philosophy and style with the Panthers, Fitzgerald eagerly observes coaches such as Thatcher when it comes to learning the ropes.

“I’ve only (coached against Thatcher) twice, but any time a coach has been doing what he does for decades, you have to respect that,” said Fitzgerald, who spent time as an assistant boys coach at Troy, N.Y.’s Catholic Central High and Shaker High in Latham, N.Y., before arriving at Thetford.

“The way I see it, every other coach is a mentor, especially the ones who have been around for a long time because they know what it takes to accomplish the things we’re trying to accomplish.

“You can learn a lot by watching them.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.