Mike James is no stranger to soccer at Newark High.
James has spent the past five years coaching the Yellowjackets girls team. He’s also served as an assistant coach for boys teams at Newark, Glasgow and Middletown, and was the head coach of the boys and girls teams at Newark Charter.
James is now the head coach of the boys squad at Newark, taking over for Diego Ruiz, who coached the Yellowjackets for four seasons.
“I took three years off to concentrate on running the girls team but I still have been active on the boys side,” James said of relinquishing his assistant coaching role with the boys a few years ago. “I make it a point to go to several of the boys games each season, and it has been great to see players I coached a few years ago as freshmen, as well as taught at school, develop into great players from a distance.”
Those young men are no longer seen from a distance as James looks forward to the challenge of getting Newark back into the state tournament after missing it last season for the first time in three years.
“I think my biggest challenge will be what any new head coach faces,” said James, who was an all-state player at Glasgow and went on to play at West Chester University. “I must make my team rules and expectations clear from the start and pride myself on being organized, motivated and well-prepared for practices. I expect my players to do the same – hold themselves to a high standard on and off the field.”
On the field, James is installing a new system.
“This year’s preseason focus will be the adjustment to a new playing style and formation, as well as a renewed emphasis on expectations on and off the field,” he explained.
James is a firm believer that being a teacher in the building gives him an advantage compared to if he was not, as is often the case at high schools around the state.
“I have a big advantage as a teacher in the building,” he said. “As a driver education teacher, it is a great way to get to teach them valued life skills and get to know them personally. These relationships are something that drew me to want to coach both the boys and girls teams, as I got to know what great student-athletes they are.”
James’ basic coaching philosophy hasn’t changed over the years from one team to the next, boys or girls, and has always centered around the importance of building individual relationships.
“I don’t anticipate making many adjustments from the girls to the boys,” he explained. “I will coach with the same philosophy and coaching style, and I feel that knowing your players individually is the most important thing, whether they are male or female.”
James is relying heavily on a recent Newark High graduate to help him make sure the team gets off to a solid start as a cohesive unit, and not just on the pitch.
“Another early season focus will be coming together as a team,” James said. “With new coaches and several new players, it will be important that we gel quickly. To help me with this, I have a great assistant, Jesus Hernandez. Jesus volunteered with my girls’ team last spring and so I knew he would be a great fit.”
Newark lost several starters to graduation but does have a core group of seniors who will be relied on to “bring along” the new and inexperienced players.
“The strength of this team is going to be our senior leadership,” James pointed out. “This includes returning all-state players Michael Aullon and Maddyan Ata as well as Adam Voigt, Nate Catts and Scott Looby. This team has some lofty goals, including a long overdue conference championship and return to the state tournament. In order for that to happen, some underclassman will have to step up. It is already clear that sophomores Alexis Casteneda, Noe Lopez and Ben Elko have the ability to be one of them.”
While many might assume Newark’s move to Division II this season will make it easier to pick up the necessary wins for a tournament berth, James disagrees.
“It is important for the players to know that dropping to Division II will offer little relief,” he stressed. “Within our conference, both Brandywine and Glasgow were tournament teams last season, and our nonconference schedule is very strong. It includes D-II state champion Caravel and D-I powers Appoquinimink and Caesar Rodney, as well as Delcastle and Sussex Tech, which were both D-I tournament teams last year.”
As the end of the first full week of preseason practice ended, James said he was pleased with how his team looks so far.
“I think the first thing I noticed is the motivation and positive attitude of the team,” James said of a group that spent the summer playing in leagues and attending captains’ practices. “They have worked hard these first few days, and I see a lot of potential in some players who are new to Newark, including some freshmen that show the ability already to play at the varsity level. I also think a return to games in the stadium on a newly renovated Bermuda field has created a lot of excitement.”
James is hoping that excitement carries over into the regular season, which begins at Caesar Rodney on Sept. 4.
“I think that in the midst of all the hard work and my competitive nature, it is important to make sure the players have fun and laugh a lot,” James said. “I want to make sure that playing high school soccer is a fun, memorable experience that hopefully they will continue to enjoy well after high school. Among all the ‘goals’ we will make this season, this is probably the most important to me.”