Fields and streams: Youth soccer coach lives his dream on sidelines, rivers
August 20, 2010
For Park City youth soccer coach Erik Hufnagle, a desk job is out of the question.
Affectionately known as "Huf" around town, he can be found on the river tying flies, running the sidelines instructing would-be Pelés, or leading outdoor enthusiasts across fields of powder on cross-country skis and snowshoes.
Just about the only place you won’t find Hufnagle is lounging in an office chair.
His most extensive experience comes between the white lines on the green grass, where he had a decorated playing career as a goaltender before resolving to deliver his lessons to younger generations.
"I think I’ve been able to naturally work well with kids starting at an early age," said Hufnagle, who coaches the U11 and U12 teams, as well as all goalkeepers, for the Park City Soccer Club (PCSC). Ingrained with a blue-collar work ethic while he was raised in Boston, he became a four-time NAIA All-American playing at Vermont’s Green Mountain College. He later played professionally in the Irish Premier League, the Norwegian Premier League, and for the U.S.-based New Hampshire Phantoms and Utah Blitz. After assistant-coaching stints at his alma mater and the Irish U19 boys’ team, Hufnagle decided to take his love for all things outdoors to Park City in September 2001, when he signed on as a fly-fishing guide for Jans Mountain Recreation Experts.
Hufnagle also fell back into coaching, both for the club and Park City High School, and he was soon followed across country by former Green Mountain teammate Tim Davis, who struck up a rapport with his elder teammate while riding on a bus trip in 1994. Davis and Hufnagle eventually roomed together and forged a lasting friendship.
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"He’s more like a brother than a friend," Davis said. Davis also jumped aboard the staff at PCSC, which features 20 teams of girls and boys ranging from ages 9 to 18. Though he doubts Hufnagle shares his own ambition to continue climbing soccer’s coaching ranks, Davis holds a great admiration for his friend’s coaching style and leadership.
"He gets his kids to laugh and like the game," Davis said. "But when it comes time to be serious, he’s not a pushover. He can raise his voice and get kind of scary sometimes, too."
Hufnagle once served as coach of the U16 team in addition to his duties at U11, but he dropped the high schoolers to helm the U12 team earlier this summer. "I’ve kind of switched my gears a little bit," he said. "With the younger kids, you’re trying to work on technique more than anything else. You want them to get as many touches as possible. With the older kids, you’re hoping that they’re already accomplished technically. You’re trying to develop tactics."
The U12 team, he said, used to get "killed" in lesser divisions, but now competes at the "premier" level in the state. Both his U11 and U12 teams won their divisions at the Park City Extreme Cup in early August, reflecting a passion for the sport and a maturity level that often surprises their coach.
"These teams are just soccer mad," Hufnagle said, recalling his own scramble to find international tidbits as a child in the pre-Internet era. "They know more about professional soccer around the world than most of the older kids."
The progression of the sport in the U.S. is evident to Hufnagle, who particularly enjoyed watching the passion engendered by this summer’s World Cup in South Africa. He said PCSC’s coaches attend symposiums to get on board with a national soccer development strategy in which young Americans will – ideally – learn how to play together on opposite coasts.
"What they really want to happen is have everybody growing up on a system that is very similar," Hufnagle said. "If you look back in the day, soccer teams played in a way that reflected where they were geographically. You can’t be super technical when you’re playing in two inches of mud in Ireland."
For his own part, Hufnagle is at home in a wide variety of environments, just as long as he’s not walled in. His older brother, a similarly talented athlete who earned a state tennis championship in high school, sparked a lifelong passion by teaching him to fly fish in Massachusetts. When he passed away in a car accident at 18, Hufnagle was only 9 years old.
"That’s why I’m a fly-fishing guide now," Hufnagle said. "I inherited all of his gear (after the accident), then proceeded to wreck most of it from ages 9-13."
There is less adrenaline involved wading in cool river waters, and Hufnagle’s patrons often find themselves feeling unusually at ease. "For whatever reason, people confide things to me on the river that they normally wouldn’t anywhere else," he said.
Hufnagle is also planning to lead snowshoe and cross-country skiing tours this winter, habits he picked up in New Hampshire where, he said, "it’s like state law" to ski. Between guiding, meeting soccer parents, walking his dog T.J., and stints around town as a bartender and a waiter, he’s about the most popular guy Davis knows.
"He should run for mayor of Park City," he said.
That might upset his wedding officiant, however. None other than Mayor Dana Williams, whose son Ryan was coached by Hufnagle, is due to wed him to fiancée Brooke Hafets on Sept. 25.
Williams is one of a litany of parents who have felt obliged to repay Hufnagle for his impact on their youngsters. Four parents called or e-mailed, unsolicited, to provide their feelings about the coach for this article.
"There’s more to coaching than knowing how to play the game," said Gina Van Luven, who has been involved with the local soccer community for over 15 years and is mother to U12 player Turner. "Eric has a knack for communicating effectively with his team. He is patient, respectful and brings out the best in his players."
Hufnagle teamed up with some of his kids to run in the "Running with Ed" relay event for the Park City Education Foundation in May, living up to his nickname "Huf" during his anguished leg of the race.
"He was huffing and puffing," said Park City Soccer Club President Dan Williamson, whose son Beau plays for Hufnagle at U12. "It was kind of funny to watch. He’s a pretty big guy, and he’s a goalie, so he typically doesn’t run that much."
That he was willing to go the extra mile – or seven – comes as little surprise to U12 player Cullen O’Brien’s mother, Penny. "He goes above and beyond the role of soccer coach," she said.
Luckily for all the happy parents, Hufnagle has no plans to leave coaching anytime soon. All he knows for sure is that he will continue to avoid a desk job.
"At all costs," he said.