‘It was time’

In the 14-year history of the Eisenhower boys soccer program, the Knights have played in 260 games. Mike Decker has led them onto the field for each and every one of them.

This fall, that will change.

Decker recently stepped down as head boys soccer coach at Eisenhower High School, ending a 14-year run that included 178 victories, three region championships, two District 10 titles and 10 postseason appearances. At the time of his resignation, Decker’s teams had clicked off 12 consecutive winning seasons.

Even though the decision has been made for weeks, Decker admitted he was still struggling with it even as late as Thursday.

“It’s a very difficult decision and to be quite honest, I’m still torn up by it,” said Decker. “I just really enjoyed coaching and we have a great group of boys coming back this season.

“Physically, it was just wearing me down a little bit. I’ve got some other things going on that I’m involved in as well and I just thought the time had come. It was time. I’m going to have a lot of unusual free time this fall.”

When the Knights won the first of back-to-back District 10 championships in 2005, it was easy to forget that just six years prior, the school didn’t even have a soccer program. The Knights started play in 1999.

At the beginning, winning district titles wasn’t exactly a priority for Decker. Rather, it was simply “having a team” and giving Eisenhower students the opportunity to play soccer.

“The School Board supported us, but it was a struggle to get a team established,” said Decker. “Some people weren’t sure it was a good idea. Early on, the goal was simply to have a team and give kids the opportunity to enjoy the game.”

Despite early setbacks, Decker said he was always fairly confident he could build a winning program.

“I truly thought we could make something of our team,” he said. “We had a lot of younger players coming up through the ranks of the YMCA and Kinzua soccer clubs at that time. I knew we’d have a deep talent pool for several years to come if we could only get things up and running.”

It didn’t take the Knights long to prove they had the ability to win. In its very first game – played at Warren’s War Memorial Field because the Knights didn’t yet have their own facility – Eisenhower defeated Abraxas, 6-4.

After losing seasons in 1999 and 2000, the Knights broke through with their first winning campaign (11-7) in 2001. That would be the first of a winning seasons streak that continues to this day.

Of all he’s accomplished as coach, Decker said what makes him most proud is the success the small school has been able to maintain throughout the years.

“We are the smallest school in District 10 yet we’ve won three region titles, two district titles and haven’t had a losing season since 2000,” said Decker. “That speaks so highly to the level of players we’ve had over the years.”

Many of Decker’s fondest memories are things you might expect.

“The first District 10 title in 2005 was just so incredible,” said Decker. (His son) Matt was a senior captain on that team and I had a group of seniors I’d been coaching since they were five years old. One of the most special group of kids I’ve had – and I’ve had many.

“Another special memory was our 2010 team beating Mercyhurst Prep to win the region title. “We scored a goal eight seconds into the match and made the lead hold up for the next 79 minutes and 52 seconds. That Mercyhurst team ended up finishing second in the state and we were the only team to beat them until their loss in the state title game.”

While the “on field” memories for Decker are plentiful, it is something much simpler that he will miss most.

“I’m really going to miss the practices,” he said. “I just had such a great time in practice. It was great to see the guys working hard and getting better and to share a couple laughs with the seniors. I’m sure going to miss that a lot.”

While Decker receives a lot of the credit for the 178 program victories secured in his 14 years at the helm, the veteran coach defers that praise, heaping it on the players and parents that he’s worked with since 1999.

“The players made it so easy for me,” he said. “They wanted to play hard and we had some incredibly talented kids. They sure made it easy on this coach. The same goes for the parents. A lot of times you hear a coach talk about dreading postgame interaction with parents or dreading a booster meeting. I didn’t have that. They were always supportive and always there whenever I needed them.”

A decision on Eisenhower’s next head coach should be made at the next meeting of the Warren County School District Board of Directors. While the next coach hasn’t been made official, Decker feels confident about the future of the program.

“I think the kids will be very happy with the next coach,” he said. “Last year’s team had a lot of young talent and there is a great amount of talent coming back. I have no doubt they will carry on Eisenhower’s winning tradition.”

And what about all that free time?

“To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m going to spend it. I guess I’ll be in my tree stand or up on the hill watching the boys play under a new coach. Whatever I’m doing, it’s going to be difficult. I’m really going to miss it.”