PLAINSBORO: Pitch perfect

By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
Both Kevin Mackenzie and Trevor Warner got their first varsity soccer head coaching jobs with the first-year West Windsor-Plainsboro High North programs.
Now, 16 years later, the two are still at the helm of the Knights soccer programs — Mackenzie with the girls team and Warner as head coach of the boys. Both coaches got their start in the district as assistant coaches and when the high school split into North and South they took over the fledgling programs.
“We were without seniors, plus there were kids that were granted exceptions from having to come to North and went to South,” recalled Mackenzie. “They had three or four players at South that could have been playing here. Our first year we were 6-10 and then we were 5-10-2 the next year. After that we jumped up to 10-6-3 and made the state playoffs and won a playoff game our third year.”
Mackenzie started coaching in WW-P as the boys middle school coach at Community Middle School and after six years moved to South as the assistant girls varsity coach. He coached the girls freshman team when the new building opened at North and then the next year was named the head coach of the first varsity team.
Warner started as the freshman boys coach before spending a year as the JV coach and two more as varsity assistant to Bryan Welsh. After one more season as a JV coach he took over the new boys program at North.
The consistency in the soccer program has been unique at the school, where only softball coach Jason Petrone and boys tennis coach Albert Paulsson have also held their head coaching positions as long as the school has been open.
“It was an exciting time,” Warner recalled of the new school opening and the big change in the district. “I knew (Welsh) growing up because of the connection he had with my father (Rolla) coaching at South. I always thought about being able to work with him and it was great. Any young coach, you get to a point where you start to feel confident and comfortable and you want to put you stamp on your own thing. I was so fortunate that with the timing everything worked to my benefit.”
Both soccer programs came along quickly. After a couple years of some growing pains both programs were competing with the elite of the Colonial Valley Conference.
“We paid our dues a little bit,” Mackenzie said. “We played Steinert in one of our first games. It was at Mercer County Park and they were up 4-0 after nine minutes. We lost that game 8-0. So we took some lumps those first couple years. But most of the games we were pretty competitive in most of the games we played.”
Added Warner: “We played Ewing our first game. We had no seniors so it was a very young bunch. We had nine freshmen and most of them got significant playing time. We got to the field late and had very little time to warm up but it worked to our advantage because the guys had very little time to think and look around. We ended up winning the game, 2-0.”
After going 5-13 their first year, the boys started winning as that group of freshmen gained experience.
“The next year we were .500 and the year after that we were slightly above .500,” Warner said. “By the time those freshmen reached their senior year, with Kyle Grato, Shayne Reid, Gregg Laskow and many of those other guys, we ended up making the Central Jersey semifinals. So each year we made steady progress.”
The North girls won the Central Jersey Group III title in 2004 and the boys added sectional titles in 2007 and 2008. But for both coaches, it has been more of a labor of love with the sport than worrying about championships.
“I enjoy it,” said Mackenzie, whose current assistant coach, Maureen Haggerty, was a player on the first North girls team. “It was always a dream of mine to coach a varsity team. Every season is different than the year before and I think that is what keeps me coming back. Even though you might have a lot of girls coming back you always have some new girls coming into that mix. You have a new leadership group and every team has its own personality.
“I always thought I would coach for a long time. I played at the collegiate level. I was in sales for five years and didn’t like it and that was actually what got me into teaching. I was coaching a recreation team in Hamilton at the time and really enjoyed it. I thought ‘this was my true calling, to work with kids.’ So I went back to school and got my teaching certification and started coaching at the middle school the year before I was hired as a teacher.”
Warner’s father, Rolla, was a very successful basketball coach at WW-P. As a youngster, Trevor would attend games and get to know the people around the program. When the opportunity arose to teach and coach in the district he was happy to be a part of it.
“My dad was a coach for a really long time,” Warner said. “So for me it was part of making a living but it was also something you love. For me it is something that has been true to my heart since I was young. It has been said so many times by so many people, but coaching really is an extension of the classroom. I just hope the guys who leave our program have fond memories of the time they had here.”
Both coaches keep an eye on how the other program is doing. They support each other on and off the field and the programs have a tight bond.
“We have a very good relationship,” Mackenzie said. “The girls and boys soccer programs are very supportive of each other. If he’s in the playoffs or has a night game I’ll go watch them play. If we’re in the playoffs he’ll come watch us play. Both programs have done well over the years. We communicate all the time and share our concerns and stresses and ups and downs of the job. It’s good to have that parallel coach you can go to who understands because he is either going through the same thing or has gone through the same thing in the past.”
Both coaches still have that same passion they did when the programs started and are looking forward to the start of another season.
“It is a grind at times,” Warner said. “But there are far more positives to look at than there are negatives.”
Added Mackenzie: “I still enjoy it. It’s fun to come out and start each year. Hopefully the next coach that comes in, they’ll add their own flavor to it but they’ll maintain the traditions that we have established.” 