Friday, April 23, 2010

Hawks soccer

St. Joseph's sees a D'Ambra comeback Philadelphia Inquirer

Don D'Ambra starred in soccer in Philadelphia, lives in South Jersey, and hopes his connections in both areas help him in his new job.

D'Ambra recently resigned as player-coach of the Kixx to become the men's soccer coach at St. Joseph's University.

A former Catholic League star at North Catholic and the only St. Joseph's soccer player to be named Atlantic 10 player of the year (1993), D'Ambra is being asked to resurrect a struggling program.

Even though he has played in the Major Indoor Soccer League for 16 years, including the last 14 in Philadelphia with the Kixx, D'Ambra has a strong pulse on the high school talent in the area.

He has maintained many Southeastern Pennsylvania connections, especially in the Catholic League, and it's vital for any Division I program to have a presence in an area boasting such top talent. In addition, D'Ambra lives in Washington Township (Gloucester County), and is executive director of the South Jersey Elite Soccer Club, which fields many boys' and girls' youth teams.

"All my roots are in Philadelphia and living in South Jersey, and starting this club really got me to know the Jersey side as well, so I have the best of both worlds," D'Ambra said.

He added that he would like to expand the area of recruiting beyond South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. That's a noble goal, but for St. Joseph's to be successful, it will have to have an impact on high school players in its own backyard.

D'Ambra, 37, enjoyed a celebrated professional career as both a player and coach, which he added to his duties during the 2002-03 season. He was a four-time MISL all-star who played on championship teams with the Kixx in 2002 and 2007, and was also the coach of the 2007 squad.

St. Joseph's is trying to take that next step in soccer, and his hiring was a clear indication of that. D'Ambra replaced Tom Turner - his college coach - who resigned after 23 years. Turner was not a full-time coach, but D'Ambra will be.

"The program is committed to improve by hiring a full-time coach, and with the upgrade to the facilities," D'Ambra said. "It's an exciting time."

Area coaches who know D'Ambra are praising the hiring.

"I think it's a great situation for St. Joseph's and for Don," said Father Judge coach John Dunlop, who guided the Crusaders to the Catholic League title and the state AAA co-championship this past season. "I think Don has a great background as a player and a coach."

More than that, Dunlop, former men's soccer coach at Philadelphia University, knows how important it is to gain the trust of players and their families during recruiting.

"If you know Don, you know he's a great guy," Dunlop said. "Parents look to see who will take care of their son, not only in soccer, and Don has that persona."

New Washington Township boys' coach Shane Snyder is a graduate of Pennsauken and St. Joseph's, and echoes Dunlop's sentiments.

"It's great for St. Joe's," Snyder said. "With all the experience he has as a player and coach, you hope that he can turn things around."

Of course, D'Ambra and the program have nowhere to go but up after the Hawks went 0-17 last season.

St. Joseph's has enjoyed one winning season since 1995, going 10-7-2 in 2001. The best team in Turner's era was 1993, D'Ambra's senior season, when the Hawks were 12-6-1 and lost to Rutgers in the Atlantic 10 championship game.

There is a lot of work to do. And the fact that D'Ambra was hired only last week makes recruiting virtually impossible for the coming season. After all, many top players have committed already.

So nobody should expect an immediate turnaround. But D'Ambra's hiring signals that St. Joseph's is serious about attempting to return the program to the same prominence it enjoyed when its new coach was leading the Hawks as a player.

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