BROCKWAY — The Brockway boys soccer program has known just two head coaches — Lou Verne and Rich Esposito — since its inception in the mid 1980s, but a new name will soon be added to that short list as Esposito decided the time was right to step away after an outstanding 10-year run as the Rovers’ top dog.
Brockway posted an impressive 169-27-4 record (19-11 in the playoffs) during Esposito’s 10-year tenure, with the lowest win total in any one season being 14 (2010, 2016).
His teams reached at least the District 9 semifinals all 10 seasons and made the D-9 finals seven of the last eight years — winning five titles (2011-13, 2017-18) — and became the first D-9 boys soccer team to reach the state semifinals with a memorable run in 2017.
The Rovers outscored their opponents by 717 goals (925-208) while recording 82 shutouts in those 200 games during Esposito’s tenure. The program also owned its home turf, posting an insane 76-1-1 home record in the last 78 homes game played at Frank Varischetti Field dating back to 2010.
A third of Esposito’s losses came in his first two years as coach. His teams had three one-loss seasons — 2015 (19-1), 2017 (20-1) and 2018 (17-1) — and two two-loss seasons in 2010 (20-2) and 2012 (19-2). The program also enjoyed its only three undefeated regular seasons (’15, ’17 and ’18) during his time as coach.
Esposito’s influence on the program goes well beyond those 10 years though, as he has served as a coach in some capacity — volunteer, paid assistant or head coach — for three decades (an estimated 580 games) at his alma mater. His retirement as head coach became official at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
A 1982 Brockway grad, Esposito later went college at Penn State, and upon graduating from there, was hired as a full-time teacher at Brockway in the spring of 1989.
The boys soccer program at Brockway was actually established when Esposito was in college, and once he became a full-time teacher at the school became a staple on the coaching staff.
And the rest, as they say is history.
Esposito coached alongside Verne through the 1990s and 2000s — winning five other District 9 titles as an assistant coach.
“When I went high school here, we only had football and everyone played football in the fall,” said Esposito. “Soccer is something we picked up in the summers and played in the rec programs. When I graduated, they had adult league soccer in the summer, so we played it.
“I liked the sport and played at Penn State on pickup teams. I just played and learned as we went along and kind of had a passion for it and wanted to be a coach of it.
“We’re still learning today and always going to camps. Penn State has always treated us good with anything we ever needed, and we’ve learned a lot from them. and tried to put that into our programs. We’re lucky to have been in the good situation we were and had success we’ve had.”
When Verne stepped away from the program, Esposito took over the program prior to the 2009 season following some down years. However, 2009 happened to be the year the program saw an influx of a talented 13-member freshmen class. That group included Esposito’s oldest son Phillip and Zach Puhala, whose father Mike Puhala who has been an assistant with Rich Esposito the past decade.
While that class ultimately jump-started the Rovers’ run of five D-9 titles in eight year, Esposito credits the 2009 senior class will laying the foundation for what was to come.
“I knew we had a lot of good kids coming up back then (2009),” he said. “But, I’ll tell you where I think the program made a big change, and who I always give credit to, is the seniors that 2009 season — guys like Michael Britton, Ryan Hills, Derrick Wells an others. Mike (Puhala) and I talked to them, and they took Phillip and Zach and all 12-13 freshmen coming in and worked with them all summer.
“They knew they (freshmen) were good players (and push for playing time). It could have went the other way, and it didn’t. Instead, they worked with them and knew the team would be good with them and that when they left the program would be in good hands because they made it that way and took them under their wing.
“I think that rubbed off, because every year since then our (current) seniors have always worked with the younger kids in the offseason and made then feel like part of the team.”
That team camaraderie — almost a family environment — has certainly played a vital role in the Rovers’ success the past 10 years, along with the talented players Esposito and his staff have groomed over the year.
Esposito was blessed to see his three sons — Phillip (2009-12), Jarrett (2013-16) and Anthony (2014-17) — become part of that group of talented players during his tenure. The same can be said for Mike Puhala, who had sons Zach (2009-12) and Zane (2015-18) play for him.
Phillip went to play football (placekicker) at Clarion University, while Jarrett is currently a placekicker for CUP as well. Anthony was a freshman this past fall for Westminster College, which won the Presidents Athletic Conference championship.
Esposito had one of his three sons play for him every year he coached except this past season, while Puhala saw Zach play the first four years and Zane the last four years of the decade.
Both sets of brothers each won at least one district title during their career. Phillip Esposito and Zach Puhala won two together in 2011-12, while Jarrett Esposito won one in 2013. Anthony Esposito and Zane Puhala won one together in 2017, then Puhala added a second this past fall.
“That can go either way coaching your kid,” said Rich Esposito. “When it started to lean the other way, that’s when Mike and Dick (assistant coach Dick Barraclough) would take my boys and talk to them and let me out of it.
“I loved coaching them (sons), and we won a district championship with all three of them. That was one of my goals. I always wanted any kid that came through the program to at least make the D-9 finals and get a medal. I think we’re lucky enough that each class that we had (as freshmen) won at least one championship.
Phillip Esposito, the program’s all-time leading goal scorer (149) and Zach Puhala returned to the program in recent years as assistant coaches along with former player Tyler Duttry. Phillip Esposito is now the Athletic Director at DuBois Central Catholic.
“We couldn’t have done any of what we did without my coaching staff though,” said Esposito. “Mike was with me all 10 years, then Dick came on board and it was just the three of us for a while. Then we added Tyler Duttry, who has been with me since he was in third grade, before Phillip and Zach came back to help.
“I always said I’m the lucky one. I get to be called the head coach, but I have a lot of good support staff that has helped make the program what it is today.”
The Esposito family’s impact on soccer in Brockway isn’t limited to just the boys’ program though.
Rich’s wife Dana was the first-ever head coach for the girls program that started in 2008 (coached through 2015 season), while their daughter Juli (2015 grad) is still the Lady Rovers all-time leading goal scorer (135). Juli wrapped up her senior year of soccer this fall at Slippery Rock University.
“It was hard at the beginning, and I give her (Dana) credit because she sacrificed a lot with four kids and letting me be out coaching,” said Esposito. “Then it got a little easier because they all played and Dana got to take over the girls program and coach Juli.
“It was a fast 10 years, but it was a great 10 years. The only time there’s ever been an issue at home is if one of us won and one of us lost on same day. It was a pretty quiet house that night.”
However, with Jarrett and Anthony still in college, Esposito felt now was the right time to step away as head coach.
“I thought about it last year (retiring after 2017 season), especially with the run we had,” he said. “Mike and I, and Dana and I talked, and with the run we made, I wanted to coach one more year and try to win districts again losing what we did and see if we could compete with the WPIAL again. And, we did that.
“Now is a good time though, and this year will be a good transition year for the program. Between the last two years, we lost our whole starting team. However, with a good, young team coming back, it will be a nice situation for a new coach to step into.
“I’m not opposed to helping out whoever takes over if they want me too. It’s hard to just step away completely. But, I want to be around to spend a little time with Anthony and Jarrett through their last few years of college, and now I have a little more flexibility to go watch them play more.”
With Esposito’s resignation accepted, Brockway will begin the process to find a new coach. With that underway, Athletic Director
“We cannot thank Coach Esposito enough for his years of service at the school as coach for our soccer program,” said Grecco. “He has done a tremendous job, and we’ll miss him a lot as a coach.
“Coach Esposito has taken a program from our small-town community and made it well know in the state of Pennsylvania.
“He is not only a great head coach and leader on the field, but also a great mentor to our kids in the classroom and on and off the field. He also had helped me a lot in my career teaching me how to handle different situations.”