DOVER — Each head coach has his or her own style, and Matt Sturdivant was ready to introduce his to the Padua soccer team in 2020 after taking over the program following the departure of former coach Joe Brown.
It would be no easy task. Under Brown, the Pandas had won state titles every year between 2012 and 2019 with the exception of 2017, when Middletown upset Padua for the Division I crown. But Sturdivant never got the chance to show what he could do with the reins in his hands since the 2020 season was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.
A year later, the Pandas were back on top of the Delaware high school soccer pyramid. The Pandas defeated Smyrna, 2-1, in a tightly contested matchup on June 1 at Dover High School. Sturdivant, who spent the 2018 and ’19 seasons as an assistant with the program, said he felt the pressure to succeed all season, but he knew his team was capable of coming through.
“Last year was supposed to be our first year,” Sturdivant said on the turf field at Dover after the victory. “There was a lot of pressure that I felt, but it’s all about the girls. I put faith in the girls. They work hard.”
With a new coach, the team had to get used to some differences in the approach.
“Every coach has a style, and my style is a little bit more relaxed and laid back than Joe, which is not a bad thing. It’s just a different style. I think it worked well for our girls this year,” he said. “Sometimes, they felt a little pressure. I knew they had the capability, and they just needed to relax a little bit. That’s what I wanted to bring to the table this year.”
All-state midfielder Sydni Wright said the team knew Sturdivant but wasn’t sure what to expect as the season began back in March. The players, as in the past, relied on each other for support.
“We have a new dynamic with him as the head coach. But our sisterhood, at Padua especially, it really helped us to stay grounded,” she said.
Her teammate and fellow all-stater, Brieana Hallo, said the coach can put in a game plan and be the biggest supporter, but ultimately, the result falls on the players.
“At the end of the day, the coach is on the sideline, and we’re on the field. So, it’s the bond between us that really matters,” she said.
Fellow senior Sophia Marini said the Padua team dynamic leads to success.
“The team community is insane. We all are so close outside of Padua soccer and inside, we just know each other so well. We have an unbreakable bond,” she said.
Wright was sure to give Sturdivant his due for helping the team in those few moments when it needed a boost.
“I think Matt was like a light we needed to keep going through the season and remain optimistic for things to come,” she said.
Their unbreakable bond is augmented by some of the best talent in the state year after year, and as is normally the case for the Pandas, they have said goodbye to a number of talented players. Sturdivant is optimistic moving forward, when he again will begin feeling the pressure.
“We’re graduating a lot this year, which we’re surely going to miss. But next year we have a lot of freshman and sophomores, and even some eighth-graders coming up, who are very capable,” he said.