When Needham takes the WPI pitch on Saturday evening to face Amherst in the Division 1 state championship game, the Rockets will have extra incentive to win the title. The Needham players will be trying to bring home the trophy for longtime head coach Don Brock, who will not be able to travel with the team to Worcester after being hospitalized during the South semifinal.
“It’s ‘win one for the Gipper’ you know,” said Needham assistant Jay Steeves, who has taken over head coaching duties in Brock’s absence and who is a former Needham player. “I told them that first of all you’re playing for yourselves, second of all you’re playing for Needham High School, and third of all you’re playing for Don Brock.”
Steeves remarked after beating BC High to win the South sectional he said that the team needed “two more wins for Don Brock” and after the win against St. John’s Prep in the state semifinal he added that it set up a “storybook ending.”
Senior midfielder Aram Ouligian, the latest All-American that Brock has coached in his 48-year career, added, “We played with so much heart and we outworked the other team and I think a big part was because of him; we’re playing for him.”
In nearly five decades, he has built Needham into perennial state title contenders, but when former players, coaches, and friends speak about Brock -- who is expected to make a full recovery -- it is clear that his influence extends beyond the lines on the pitch.
“He’s a teacher and a mentor first and a coach second,” said Needham girls’ soccer coach Carl Tarabelli, who was a captain on the 1977 team that went unbeaten and did not allow a goal. “At the end of the day, he treats them like adults. He holds them accountable; he wants them to take responsibility for their actions.”
Mac Steeves, the program’s all-time leading scorer and captain of the 2012 state title team, spoke about Brock’s influence in an October interview. He said, “He was definitely not just a coach, but more like a teacher. He helped me learn, kept me on the right track, and moving forward from high school to freshman year of college it definitely helped me playing under Coach Brock.”
Brock was a math teacher at the high school when he took charge of the Needham soccer program in 1966 and both Jay Steeves and Tarabelli highlighted his classroom experience as a factor in his ability to connect with high school soccer players.
“He understands kids and their mentalities and what it takes to motivate them,” said Steeves. “I have numerous stories of people coming up to him that didn’t even play for him…as a teacher and a coach he’s affected so many people. “
Steeves added that even while Brock is in the hospital his mind is still on the team.
He sent Steeves to The Needham Channel -- the public access station in town -- on Wednesday to get copies of the game (“I told him I’d swing by the Dover Market and get him a bowl of chowder and sneak the tapes in for him,” joked Steeves) and had to be told by his family and doctors that he could not stream the game live online.
“Here’s a guy that’s not 100 percent but his first question every time when I speak to him on the phone is: ‘How are the boys?’” said Steeves.
While he is able to motivate the players as a mentor, Brock also has a passion for soccer and has stayed on the forefront of tactics and training. He has had to adapt to a series of rule changes and style changes to remain on top. Whether it was the change in the pass-back rule, the attempt at instituting a 35-yard offside line, or adopting 15-minute quarters, Brock has kept the Needham program strong throughout his 48 seasons.
“He has a great analytical mind,” explained Tarabelli. “He was ahead of his time in the system that he employed even going back 30 years. He’s stayed current in the latest and greatest in training techniques. He has never sat back on his credentials.”
Tarabelli also called Brock “the Bill Parcells of high school soccer” for the number of coaches that have gone through the Needham program. He believes that 30-40 percent of the coaches in the Needham youth programs were coached by Brock, which has molded the next generation of Rockets to step in with an understanding of the Needham system and the expectations that go with being part of the program.
Brock’s influence extends well beyond Needham and even into the upper levels of U.S. soccer with former player Doug Williamson, a member of the 1968 state title-winning team, now a senior staff member at the NSCAA. Williamson still credits Brock as being an important influence.
The game has changed and the players are different, but there is continuity within the Needham program. Jay Steeves was a ball boy for the 1977 team and watched up close as Tarabelli and the Rockets went unbeaten. Mac Steeves was a ball boy before becoming the program’s leading scorer and current Rockets captain Jason Miller was a ball boy during Mac’s sophomore season.
Steeves said, “The winning attitude that [Don] instilled and the way everyone always came out and played for him; as a seventh and eighth grader that was something that I wanted to be a part of. That winning tradition has always been there.”
On Saturday in Worcester, many former Needham players will be in the stands to cheer on the current Rockets when they take the pitch. It is a tangible reminder of the legacy that Don Brock has built and that the current players are motivated to continue.
“Every team tries to be the best team that ever plays for him,” said Tarabelli. “If you go to the finals on Saturday there will be 14 of us (players from the 1977 team) that we still follow the team, we still hang out together.” Tarabelli pauses and laughs before adding, “And we still remind everybody that nobody can do what we did.”