Boys soccer marks 50th anniversary

Coaches, former players reflect on half a century of successes on and off the field

Mike Wiggins' first introduction to the Hinsdale Central soccer program was at an Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association Banquet at the Starlight Inn off Interstate 294 near Rosemont.

Wiggins was a high school senior, there to be honored, and his own coach was busy organizing the event. Coach Dick Flesher approached him with an invitation.

"I'm pretty sure you're Mike Wiggins. We've got a couple of seats over here. Why don't you come and join us?" Wiggins remembers him saying. "I'm not even in his program and that's the kind of guy that he is."

After being hired at Hinsdale Middle School in 1993, Wiggins reconnected with Flesher and volunteered to be an assistant coach for the boys soccer program. He remembers one game in particular from that season.

"I sat with Coach Flesher as an assistant coach for the very first night game that this program ever played here at Hinsdale Central in the boys soccer program," he said. "It's just fun to know those things and to know that's part of the history of the program."

That history has been important to Wiggins since his first days as head coach in 2002.

"I got every yearbook I could get my hands on out of the library and I started collecting data," he said. "It's not just X's and O's. It's not just you win games, you lose games. It's not just the annual timeline of go to summer camp, go through tryouts, have your season and come back all over again.

"What are the things that come into what a program is about - and a big piece of that in my mind is making a connection from the present to the past," he said.

He's made a point of sharing that information with his players, not always sure how it would be received.

"I really didn't think that players were paying attention to it," he said. "There would be times when I would hear the players talking about a consecutive streak of this or number of goals scored for that. I realized it held a special place in the eyes of the players just as much as it did to me."

While Wiggins never started gathering history with a specific anniversary in mind, it came in handy this year as the program celebrates its 50th year at Central. A host of players came back to campus for the Sept. 23 game homecoming weekend, some from as far away as California, Arizona and Washington.

Former players look back

Among the attendees at the 50th anniversary celebration was Matt Sperry, who played at Central from 2000-03 and now lives in Clarendon Hills. He said Wiggins started texting him about the event almost a year in advance.

"When he is passionate about something and wants to do something, he always follows through," Sperry said.

Sperry helped reach out to former players and was pleased with the turnout, especially from a number of old teammates.

"Seeing those guys and Wiggins kind of taking us through stories and all the stuff he remembers on his 20 years at Central, it was really well done and it was good to see everyone," he said.

Sperry said as cliché as it might sound, what he enjoyed most about the soccer program were the friendships and relationships he built while playing his "favorite sport in the world."

"I still keep in close touch with Coach Wiggins at age 37. I still text him all the time," Sperry said. "I text him pictures and videos of my 5- and 7-year-old sons when they are playing AYSO and score a cool goal."

The lessons Sperry learned as a team captain have benefited him as a coach for his boys' soccer, basketball and baseball teams.

"A lot of the stuff that I got from Coach Begley and Coach Wiggins really helped me develop into a good father, a good coach, a good mentor," said Sperry, who works in software technology sales. "I think it's helped all different parts of my life. I'm very thankful to both of them."

Jim Walker, who was part of the 2014 state championship team, also pointed to the program's culture and environment. Over four years he created bonds with many different classes, from the seniors who played when he was a freshman to the freshmen in the program when he was a senior.

"I got to see seven years' worth of players go through the program, and there was a continuity of culture that was maintained despite many differences in the actual individuals themselves," Walker said.

Wiggins always had words of wisdom for players about being on time, being prepared and where to focus.

"Only worry about the things you can control. That was one of the best life lessons I've received from anybody," Walker said.

And those lessons are still benefiting him 10 years later as a student in a combined MD/MBA program at Northwestern University. He said he learned much about life through soccer.

"Which I am only beginning to appreciate the further I get from the field," he said.

Imad Haque, a 1990 graduate who now has a general surgery practice in Seattle, said the fact that three former Hinsdale Central soccer players were in his class in med school at the U of I says something about the program.

"Really you learn some very crucial life lessons about how to persevere, how to put your head down and work hard and how to keep your head up when things are rough," said Haque, who went from Central to West Point and a career in military medicine and surgery. He retired as a colonel after 21 years in the Army in 2019.

"They are really irreplaceable in terms of experiences you benefit from during those formative years in life," he said.

Haque, who also was a gymnast at Central, pointed to the importance of commitment demonstrated by all of his coaches. He recalls meeting Flesher, who also had been a goalkeeper, before school for one-on-one training sessions.

"He would literally just pummel me for 45 minutes," Haque recalled. "That's how you got better. You saw shot after shot after shot. It was super helpful."

The trio of coaches

Flesher also remembers those early-morning sessions with Haque. He, of course, sees them not as a testament to the quality of coaches in the program, but to the quality of student-athletes.

"Those are the kinds of players and experiences that stand out for me," Flesher said.

Flesher was working at LT in 1979 when Harvey Dickinson let him know about an opening at Central. It was already August, and Flesher decided not to pursue the position.

"Harvey found out that I did not even interview and he was all upset. He said, 'Well, you'll never come over here. Anyone who turns down working at Hinsdale Central, blah, blah, blah,' " Flesher recalled.

The following year there was another opening, which Flesher obtained. He became the assistant boys soccer coach under Dick Ohl, who started the program in 1973. Ohl had been battling cancer for 27 years.

"The following year his condition got worse and I became head coach in 1981. He passed away that fall," Flesher said.

The highlight of his career was simply getting to know the boys on the team not only as athletes, but as individuals.

"For me coaching and teaching were basically one in the same, just trying to make connections with young people," he said, noting the lessons on the field are no different than those in the classroom.

"If there's a loss, they have to learn from it, just like a coach does, and make adjustments. I think that's exactly what happens in the classroom," Flesher said. "Say a student gets a 'D' on a paper and the student and teacher make adjustments so there is improved performance the next time. It's the same on the soccer field or the basketball court."

Flesher noted there have been only four coaches in the program's 50 years.

"That stability, I think, has served the players and the program well," he said.

He also pointed to the investment made prior to players arriving at Central.

"There have been lots of traveling team coaches, lots of AYSO coaches and lots of parents and players that put in a lot of time to get to Hinsdale Central," he said.

Begley has the shortest tenure of boys varsity head coaches, serving for only five years from 1996-2001. After he had a heart attack in 2000, administrators suggested coaching the boys and girls soccer teams and serving as PE department chair might be a bit much. He agreed to give up just one head coaching position.

"I'll stay with either program and you find what you think is the best fit for the teaching openings you have," he said. "That's when they brought Mike in."

He remembers first visiting Central and noticing all the banners hanging in the gym.

"You go to a lot of gyms and see a lot of banners," said Begley, who coached at three other high schools before coming to Central.

Then he noticed they were all for state championships.

"I've taught in a couple of schools that have never got a state championship," he said.

Begley has nothing but praise for his successor and the program. He retired from teaching in 2012 but came back to coach the freshman boys soccer team seven years ago.

"To be around Wiggins and the rest of the coaches, he's got a great staff and it's a lot of fun to be part of that," Begley said.

The September celebration illustrated the kind of coach Wiggins is, Begley said, with his efforts to get so many alumni back and having a throwback uniform for the team and a packet outlining 50 years of history to distribute.

"You probably don't find a lot of high school programs that have built that kind of tradition, and Mike has been a real keeper of the traditions and establishing traditions to make Hinsdale Central soccer be a program that has been celebrated for 50 years."

Wiggins said he thoroughly enjoyed the event.

"It's special to me because we're at a special place and we've got so many neat stories and so many successful student athletes that have come through and gone on to do so many different things," he said.

Another historic event just might occur before the season ends. Victories in the Proviso East regional Wednesday night (after press time) and Saturday would mark career wins 399 and 400 for Wiggins, now in his 21st year of coaching at Central. He registered his first 97 at Downers Grove South.

"Pretty amazing," he said on Tuesday. "I've been doing this for a while. When you do it for a while, you can get those numbers because you have good players and you have players who are coachable and hard-working and committed."

Sperry said he hopes Wiggins will continue coaching for a while longer, as his oldest will arrive at Central in seven years. No matter how long he stays, Wiggins is grateful for his time with the storied program.

"if I haven't just been the most blessed coach to have the players I've had over the years," he said. "It's just amazing."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean