"We are a work in progress," nods coach Brian Welsh. Arms folded across his chest, he stands glowering scrutiny over this year’s varsity crop as they run drills. They have come a third of the way through the season with a 3-4 record.

Welsh appears less than pleased, but he has probably always seemed less than pleased. For the past 22 years, Welsh has rammed, cajoled and inspired West Windsor Plainsboro boys’ soccer teams on to winning seasons. Welsh is the old style coach, the kind you wouldn’t dream of feeding an excuse or giving less than your ultimate.

"No, Hatcher," he barks. "You rushed that ball again. Drop and give me 10 pushups." The athlete hits the ground and pumps out 10. Just enough to remind him, not so many as to exhaust him. "It’s a balancing act," says Welsh. "Practice must be hard and serious, but not a grinding misery which the athletes recall only with loathing."

This year, the 19-man High School South varsity runs rich in skilled players. Captain Chris Dampier, one of the strongest athletes on any field this year, rallies the team with his personal energy from the left or marking back positions. Junior Jeff Fisher, whose 23 goals last season made him the county’s leading scorer, has already slammed seven goals in as many games. Allen Weston who has booted in four this season, joins the formidable attack team. Forming an inseparable block in center field stands the team of Matt and Brian Kebel. Sophomore Brian, 15, at midfield runs confidently forward, ever protected by brother Matt, 18-year-old senior, who keeps close behind in the defensive position.

Like so many West Windsor-Plainsboro players, the Kebels barely remember days without some soccer league. For these brothers, it began with the Rockville, Long Island, recreation league. By age seven, they each had made the league’s traveling team, playing twice a week, often two hours away.

Last year, the boys attended a soccer camp in Delaware, and the improvement, according to their coach, has proved startling. "Brian has really developed a good `soccer brain,’" says Welsh. "He knows just where to set himself defensively. Matt is just a ton of energy and emotion, despite a two-year bout with his injury," (a ligament tear for which he still wears a brace.)

Wonderful. West Windsor Plainsboro South’s varsity soccer team has the skills. It certainly has the support. Hundreds attend each game. A cadre of truly devoted parents aids the players at every turn. So what’s the trouble? Where are the victories?

Coach Welsh shakes his head. "The truth is, I wish I had more football players." He’s not talking bigger brutes or more heavily muscled athletes. "We are lacking that traditional football-player attitude: more fight, more internal drive, more explosive energy and mental endurance."

Welsh hastens to point out he is not comparing his team with the current gridiron athletes running plays on the adjacent field. "We just need more of football’s traditional death-fight style," he says. "We have lost two games we really should have won. With both Allentown (a 2-1 loss) and Nottingham (1-0), we let our aggression just drain away and just stood there defensively taking shots."

Enhancing this unified team aggression, along with improving the split-second mental decisions, are elements in which coach Welsh already sees improvement. He predicts his 20th West Windsor Plainsboro varsity team will finish with a remarkably strong showing. "They have what it takes, and now they are starting to bring it onto the field," he says optimistically.

A local boy with "solid Trenton roots," Brian Welsh has devoted his entire adult life to mentoring area students. Graduating from Steinert High School in 1976, Welsh played left back all four years at Rider College. Immediately upon graduation, he joined the West Windsor-Plainsboro staff, coaching two JV then 20 varsity teams.

During class hours, students find him teaching social studies and an elective on Law and Politics, a course opted by five of his players. Not far down the hall, Welsh’s wife, Beth teaches a course in human behavior. His two daughters play soccer, but his eighth grade son, Ryan, has chosen the gridiron for his autumn sport. "Oh well," laughs his father, "football offers 42 scholarships around the state, soccer only has eight. Let’s keep a good thought."

Through all these years of coaching, teaching and caring, Welsh does find himself distressed by the fruit of our area’s excessive supervision. "Go to West Windsor Park — right now, 4:30 p.m., when school is out," he challenged me. "You won’t find a kid there. Everyone boasts of our towns’ marvelous feeder system for soccer. But there’s no free play. As a result, the kids lack all internal motivation. Coaches and parents end up supplying strictly external motivation."

I went as Welsh bade me. The park stood like a jilted bride. The immaculately groomed fields were barren of leaves, stray twigs, or players of any sort.

— Bart Jackson