A lot of people give lip service to the importance of helping teenagers become solid, productive adults. Charlie Inverso, head coach of the Mercer County Community College soccer team, is actually doing the job — one student, and one goal at a time. And it’s not easy.

Inverso is one of the winningest coaches in college soccer. He has racked up 389 wins versus just 34 losses over 22 years. His teams have won a number of national titles, and many of his players have gone on star on four-year college teams. Some have even excelled in professional soccer careers.

But Inverso’s job is about much more than coaching his players to victory. Community college soccer, he explains, is often a choice of last resort for students with lots of ball-handling ability, but a dearth of academic skills.

More important to him than his win/loss record, he says, is that fact that at least 135 of his former players, kids who might easily have been left to face the future without soccer and without an education, have gone on to play soccer at elite schools, and have earned four-year degrees.

Inverso is the keynote speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Trade Fair luncheon on Friday, September 7, at noon at the Westin Forrestal Village. Cost: $35. Call 609-924-1776 for reservation or register online at www.princetonchamber.org.

“I would say that most of my players come from referrals from Division I coaches,” says Inverso. He has built solid relationships with many coaches from competitive colleges. He doesn’t want to name all of the schools, but does say that many of his students come to him as referrals from St. Johns, Seton Hall, and Rutgers. The plan is that he will take a promising player, perhaps a guy who is “a little rough around the edges, not the complete package.” His mandate is to return the player in two years, diploma in hand, to play at the Division I school. There is no formal agreement, but that is how the system works.

This system is in place because these schools demand that in-coming students — no matter how athletically gifted — meet fairly high academic standards. Added to the schools’ own admission standards are the standards of the NCAA, which requires in-coming student athletes at Division I schools to have achieved at least a C average in 13 core subjects in high school and to have achieved respectable SAT scores.

It is Inverso’s task to turn youngsters unable to meet this standard when they catch the eye of a Division I coach into young adults who transfer to a top school. It is an aspect of his job that means he has to be concerned about a lot more than on-the-field strategy. “It’s like eating lobster,” he says. “There’s a lot more cracking open shells than eating the meat.

“People think it’s easy to get a diploma from a two-year school, but it isn’t,” he says. “Kids have to take a core curriculum, two years of English, two of science, and a year of a lab science.” The young people referred to him have struggled with these basics, sometimes because they live abroad, are immigrants, or are the children of immigrants. English is often not his players’ first language.

MCCC’s soccer team roster, while it includes many players from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, also tends to have substantial representation from abroad, and particularly, of late, from Trinidad and Israel.

It falls to Inverso to monitor the academic progress of each of his players, regardless of language barriers. Are they attending classes? Turning in assignments on time? Achieving good grades? Are they getting any tutoring help they may need?

As many of his students do not live near enough to MCCC’s campus to bunk at home, he is also charged with helping them to find apartments. When housing arrangements fall through, it is up to him to scramble to find something that works.

The students’ conduct is also his concern. “In 22 years there has just been one bad incident,” he says. “It didn’t involve an assault or anything like that, but it was bad. It has never happened again. I’m proud of that.” He attributes his current players’ good off-the-field conduct to careful screening before they are admitted and to on-going monitoring.

Inverso’s own youthful monitoring came from his parents, now deceased. He grew up in Mercerville, where his mother was a stay-at-home mom and his father was an accountant, and “the best kind of sports parent.” Absolutely unathletic himself, the elder Inverso was a huge, but clueless, supporter of his son’s involvement with soccer, which began at about age 10. “He wasn’t one of those pushy parents you see today,” says his son. “He didn’t beat all the fun out of it. He coached my teams, even though I don’t think he even knew how many people were supposed to be on the field. He was always taking me and my friends to professional games. He was great.”

When he entered high school, Inverso briefly abandoned soccer for football, and hesitates for not one second before giving his views on why so many boys abandon the one sport for the other. “It’s about puberty,” he says. “Boys suddenly have all of these new muscles, and they want to try them out. Soccer is a rough sport, but they like the contact of football.”

Inverso, too, might have left soccer behind forever, as so many suburban boys do, but football was not a good fit. “Football players have to be big,” he says. “I was 108 pounds in high school.”

So, it was back to soccer, where he played varsity at Trenton State, and was captain of the team in 1979. He graduated in 1980 with a degree in health and physical education. “I always knew I wanted to be a coach,” he says. His first job was at Princeton University, where he was delighted to be taken on “as sort of an intern” right after he graduated. He remained on the coaching staff there for six years, and vividly recalls being impressed by the young men with whom he worked.

“They were so energetic,” he says, “and so nice. Most of them. They would stay up until 3 a.m. studying, and when they came to practice, they’d still ask ‘how are you? how’s your day going?’”

A modest man, Inverso says that he suspected he didn’t belong in an Ivy League environment. He did apply for the job of head coach at Princeton in 1996, but says that he is glad that Jim Barlow got the job. “He’s a Princeton graduate. It was a much better fit,” he says. He and Barlow have become good friends, and are working together on a new project that brings excitement to Inverso’s voice, despite the fact that he is exhausted from the 12-hour days he is putting in just before the start of his season.

The pair, along with other volunteers, are busy getting a youth soccer program off the ground in Trenton. The effort, spearheaded by Inverso, is being organized as the Glenn Myernick Foundation. Myernick, who died last October, was “born and raised in Trenton,” says Inverso, and was assistant coach of the United States World Cup team.

“In the United States, soccer is suburban,” says Inverso, “but in the rest of the world it’s urban. There’s no reason that it can’t be urban here too.” He has recruited top coaches, including Barlow, to give the Trenton kids a good start. Trenton is a test location for the foundation, which Inverso hopes to take national.

A mystery is how Inverso is managing to fit this new project into his schedule. His coaching job at MCCC is officially just part time, despite the fact that it absorbs some 50 hours a week in season, and many hours in every other season. He also works full time as a health and physical education teacher in the Hamilton school system, and coaches on the 15 and under United States soccer team, where his specialty is goal tending. “I tell people I work every day but Christmas,” says Inverso, who is the father of two children, Hailey, age 9, and CJ, age 7. His wife, Lynne Inverso, teaches phys ed in East Windsor.

While many of his players are young men sent to him by Division I college coaches, Inverso does keep an eye out for local talent. His scouting sometimes takes him to Lawrence High School and to Allentown High School, where the head soccer coach of each team got his start at MCCC.

These successes, says Inverso, are what keep him going, and what he thinks about as he prepares for yet another season.

— Kathleen McGinn Sprin

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