Generation of Lyme soccer players credits nonprofit founder with teaching the game

  • Grassroot Soccer CEO Tommy Clark in a 2018 photograph. Clark is founder of the organization that works with youth in developing countries. (Chris Milliman photograph) Chris Milliman photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2021 9:52:45 PM
Modified: 11/27/2021 9:52:41 PM

The Hanover High boys’ soccer team may not have won the NHIAA Division I state championship, falling in a heartbreaker in 11 rounds of penalty kicks to Nashua South on Nov. 5. But for several Hanover players, the journey’s end under the bright lights of Nashua’s Stellos Stadium might not have been possible but for a backyard in Lyme.

Of the 25 players on Hanover’s 2021 roster, eight call Lyme — population roughly 1,700 — home. And there’s one man largely responsible for helping Lyme punch well above its weight in producing soccer talent: Tommy Clark.

Clark was born in Scotland and then lived in Zimbabwe before coming to Hanover when his father, Bobby, became the head men’s soccer coach at Dartmouth. Tommy graduated from Hanover High in 1988 and then played for Bobby with the Big Green. He returned to Zimbabwe to teach English and coach soccer before coming back to Dartmouth for medical school. In 2002, he founded Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit whose mission is to use soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize young people in developing countries.

He raised his family in Lyme, living there for 10 years before moving to Hanover. That was more than enough time to teach Lyme’s schoolchildren the finer points of the game he loves. When his son Hugh — now a senior at Hanover who plays club soccer with Seacoast United — and his friends were in kindergarten, Clark invited the kids to his backyard, at 336 River Road, for soccer lessons rather than having them sign up for club teams and travel long distances to play.

“They weren’t really clinics,” Clark said. “There was no sign-up, you just showed up. It didn’t cost anything. It was as informal as you could get.”

The group grew over the years, adopting the name Lyme Wolves. Clark’s yard, even though it was outdoors, was nicknamed “the Wolfdome.” The lessons lasted an hour or so and were open to all genders, and parents would frequently hang around and drink tea or coffee. When the kids got older, they would play on wintry Sunday afternoons in the gym at Lyme School.

While many youth coaches teach players to pass first, Clark emphasized dribbling, believing the kids needed to get comfortable with the ball at their feet.

“It’s a little bit ironic, but the key to becoming a good passer is to become a good dribbler,” Clark said. “To encourage (the kids to) spread out, pass the ball, I feel like that’s kind of a waste of time.”

Clark coached four current Hanover seniors — Eric Ringer, Oscar Miller, Jack Ross and Zane Schiffman. Four of the team’s sophomores also hail from Lyme, as do a few players at other schools. Evan Nichols, another Hanover senior, was a starter the last two seasons but did not play this year while training with the U.S. national team in Nordic combined. Daniel Mladek, who helped Lebanon High win its first Division II state title in 30 years this fall, also learned under Clark’s tutelage.

At around age 12, the Lyme Wolves’ players joined the Norwich-based Lightning Soccer Club. Bill Miles, the club’s executive director, played against Clark in the Ivy League for the University of Pennsylvania.

“Tommy has really special vibe about him in terms of soccer knowledge,” Miles said. “He does it from his own intuition and experience as a player. That creates some unique skills and approaches that you see in the players at Hanover.”

The effects of Clark’s training were evident in Hanover this fall. The Lyme players were key contributors on a team that went 15-4-1 and averaged roughly 2.5 goals per game. Ringer, a first-team all-state selection, led the team in points and was tied for the team lead in goals with eight. Miller was named to the second team, and his seven goals were third-best on the squad.

Sophomore Carter Guerin, another Lyme native, saved Hanover from a first-round playoff upset by scoring with 15 seconds left to forge a tie against Alvirne, in a game Hanover would win in extra time.

“(Clark) brought a lot of joy to the game for me,” Miller said. “Doing the simple things that I learned with him always helps me improve, even today. I talk with him regularly. He’s known a lot of us from a young age and had a lot of time to build bonds and mold us into the players we are today.”

Hanover coach Rob Grabill is certainly grateful for Clark’s influence. He was an assistant to Clark’s father at Dartmouth, and during Bobby Clark’s tenure the Big Green advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals for the only two instances in their history, in 1990 and 1992.

“He demands accountability,” Grabill said. “He is a wonderful role model on the pitch, and that impact has trickled down to Hanover High School.”

Tommy Clark is just one branch his father’s large coaching tree. Following his time at Dartmouth, Bobby went on to Stanford and Notre Dame, winning a national championship with the Fighting Irish in 2013. Clark’s brother Jamie has won two conference titles as the head men’s coach at the University of Washington, which is currently the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. His sister Jennifer is currently the head women’s coach at Division III Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, in southern California.

Clark’s foundation, meanwhile, has gained global recognition, operating in 45 countries. U.S. women’s national team star Christen Press is on the board of directors. Grassroot Soccer will present the World AIDS Day Gala in New York on Nov. 30, which will be emceed by Men in Blazers co-host Roger Bennett and include appearances from Press, late-night host Seth Meyers and legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Back in the Upper Valley, Clark’s legacy can be seen on soccer fields everywhere, but for many of his trainees, it all stems from Lyme and the Wolfdome.

“My thing was trying to get as many touches on the ball and driving as few miles as possible,” Clark said. “If you could have kids getting lots of touches on soccer balls and not driving very far, that’s a winning recipe.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.




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