Boys Soccer – Dave Santos Steps Down at Marlboro
Not many soccer coaches in the Shore Conference or the entire state of New Jersey are as revered by their coaching brethren as much as Dave Santos is, and yet, you wouldn't know it by looking at his career record.
"We were playing Toms River North (in 2014) in the Shore Conference Tournament, and I was standing on the sideline before the game with my two assistants, Brian Nash and A.J. Mokes," Santos recalled. "I said, 'You know, if we win today, this will be my 200th career win.'
"Mokes said, 'Yeah, and if you lose, it will be your 300th career loss.' He probably wasn't far off, either."
For the record, Marlboro won that game in overtime as a No. 19 seed over the third-seeded Mariners. In the second half of his 21-year tenure at Marlboro - which is now complete after he confirmed Monday that he plans on stepping down as Mustangs head coach - this was a staple of his teams: lay low early, build up on-field chemistry, and wreak havoc on unsuspecting teams in the postseason.
Also, for the record, Mokes's joke was effective in its point and in its exaggeration. Santos has lost more games than he has won as a head coach, but he has rallied in recent years to get closer to .500. He stands at 228-250-35 for his career, including 187-197-24 at Marlboro. He began his head coaching career with a six-year stint at Red Bank Catholic from 1990 to 1995.
"I've been blessed with the opportunity to coach a lot of great kids and some excellent players," Santos said. "This has been a much better experience than I anticipated it would be when I took the job. This year, we had a great group of kids that were fun to be around, fun to coach and got along great with one another. That's not atypical of the groups I've had in the past, even in some of the years when we only won like two games. That's probably the part I'm most appreciative of."
Minimizing Santos's impact to wins and losses is misguided from a number of perspectives. First, he coached in Class A North, the Shore Conference's most competitive division. The field includes the likes of Christian Brothers Academy, Manalapan and Freehold Township, as well as a Howell team that enjoyed a stretch of dominance, and Colts Neck, Middletown North and Middletown South programs that also had their moments.
Secondly, Santos was a coach who teaches how to play the game above how to win it. The beautiful game is less about the goal and more about the build-up to the goal, and Marlboro has been a program that has played with that conviction as much as any public school team in the area.
"My goal is always the same every year," Santos said. "It's about getting a group of high school kids to jell into a team and believe in one another. It was nice when it resulted in wins, but that was never really an indicator of whether or not I enjoyed the season. With this year's group, they could have been 2-20 and I still would have liked them the same."
Thirdly, and quite simply, Santos did win. He won at a program that never previously knew the heights it reached while under his guidance. Santos took over the program in 1996 and after building up the program over the first six years, led the team to its first breakthrough in 2002 in the form of an appearance in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final against South Brunswick.
Just two seasons later, Marlboro was back in the sectional final against Rancocas Valley, but again fell short of capturing the program's first sectional championship. It was not until this past fall that the Mustangs returned to the Central Jersey IV championship game, and this year was the closest Marlboro got to winning a sectional crown. The Mustangs took top-seeded Hunterdon Central to penalty kicks after a 0-0 game before losing in the shootout, 7-6.
Marlboro's 2016 season ended in heartbreak, but it lives on several times over thanks to an emotional postseason run that highlighted what was arguably the best season in program history. The Mustangs won three overtime games leading up to the sectional final, with senior forward and leading scorer P.J. Ringel scoring two of the golden goals.
Ringel lost his father in a car accident the day before the start of the state tournament and scored two goals - including the winner - the next day in a first-round win over Colts Neck. He later scored the lone goal in a 1-0 overtime win over Manalapan in the sectional semifinal.
"You learn some valuable lessons competing in high school athletics," Santos said. "You can learn a lot about how to deal with life by what you learn in the athletic arena, and I think it worked both ways this year. We all saw what P.J. went through and how the players and coaches went through it with him, and it was a very powerful, emotional time for everybody. It's something I'll never forget."
Marlboro went 20-2-2 this past fall, which was the best record any Mustangs team has ever posted. The season included handing CBA its only loss during a 24-1 campaign and a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final for the third time in school history. CBA handed Marlboro its only two losses of the season - one in overtime in September and the other in the SCT final.
Unlike the Central Jersey Group IV final, Santos did not get shut out in his three SCT final appearances. The 2009 Mustangs came from 1-0 down to beat CBA, 2-1, in the championship game - giving Marlboro its lone SCT boys soccer title while handing CBA the only loss it has ever suffered in an SCT final.
Marlboro also reached the final in 2008 and lost to Freehold Township.
It was fitting that Marlboro's lone Shore Conference Tournament championship victory came against CBA with Santos as the head coach. Santos is a graduate of CBA and has taught history at the Academy for the last 24 years.
Santos interviewed for the CBA head coaching position last year when it became vacant for the first time in 41 years following the retirement of longtime coach Dan Keane, under whom Santos played. CBA went with Santos's former high school teammate, Tom Mulligan, with whom Santos is still close.
Longtime CBA assistant Jeff Matson stepped down following the end of the 2016 season, which potentially leaves an assistant opening under Mulligan. Santos said he could not currently comment on the CBA situation.
"There are some family obligations that have come up," Santos said. "(Stepping down) is something I've been thinking about for a few years and now was best time for me and my family to make this decision."