Hopewell native brings her soccer skills to Lawrence High School
Dana and Geoff Williams are at home celebrating the Aug. 10 birth of daughter Shea Makayla, and while the Lawrence High School athletic community and faculty in general are celebrating along with the first-time parent, athletic director Ken Mason knows that one family’s baby also meant one school’s coaching vacancy.
When Dana stepped down as the Cardinals’ girls’ soccer coach. Mason quickly brought in a bright young soccer mind to take over the program: he hired Hopewell Valley High and West Chester State University graduate Emily Palombo.
Palombo’s first actual coaching job came in the fall of 2009, just after graduation from WCSU. She returned to Hopewell to serve as assistant under interim head coach Jeff Neumann, and the Bulldogs promptly shared the NJSIAA Group III championship that year. After two scoreless overtimes, Hopewell Valley and opponent Northern Highlands were tied, and both were named Group III champions.
Although regular head coach John McGinley – who was serving as interim athletic director that season – didn’t get to work closely with Palombo, he saw enough to know her potential was there.
“Absolutely,” McGinley said. “She was just out of college and had just gone through the experience of playing. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it’s pretty easy to be someone who was close enough in age to the players – but not too close – to be able to be a good role model and to understand where the players were coming from. And they could understand where she was coming from.
“It was a huge advantage to have someone like Emily. They had a lot of respect for her, and she pushed them. Sometimes young coaches try to be too friendly and try not to make it too hard on them, and while she had a good relationship with them, she was able to flip the switch was able to put them in their place if she had to.”
Palombo knew she wanted to be a coach at an early age, and McGinley could see it in her when she played for him from 2001-04. When Emily returned to her alma mater, that first year made it official in her mind.
“I was lucky enough to coach with Neumann that year, and that really finalized it, I knew I wanted to do it,” Palombo said. “It was a great experience getting to know the girls on that level, through teaching them. I always loved working with younger players.”
Palombo’s soccer career began at age 7 when she was good enough to play on a U9 travel team in Hopewell. She stayed with the local club until age 13 before playing with the FC Magic, coached by Princeton University women’s assistant Ron Celestin.
When she arrived at HVCHS, Palombo played for three weeks on the JV team as a freshman before being called up to varsity. She was one of the first girls off the bench during the regular season. Her most vivid memory that year was a Central Jersey Group III sectional semifinal game against Wall, when she was told to go in as a marking back.
“I got thrown into that game, and the rest is history,” she said with a laugh. “I can still remember that game. I remember McGinley telling me ‘Eat and breathe this girl from Wall, be her shadow.’ We won the game and then we lost to Watchung Hills in the sectional finals.”
That same game is also fresh in McGinley’s mind.
“We had given her some responsibility because she was the kind of player who wanted responsibility, even as a freshman,” he said. “I remember her being very accepting of that role we gave her.”
He also remembers hoping that Palombo would remain in the game as either a coach or an official.
“Of course it would be nice for your players to go on and be doctors and lawyers,” McGinley said. “But I remember telling her if she could stay in the game in any way, she should try and do that.”
It was all part of her grand plan, to be a teacher and a coach.
After a redshirt freshman year at West Chester, the Golden Rams were ranked nationally the three seasons Palombo played, never dropping below 10th in NCAA Division II. West Chester went 75-9-10 during that time and reached the Final Four during her sophomore season.
Palombo had three coaches during college and credits Gerry Lucey – along with McGinley — as having the biggest influences on her fledgling career. Lucey was the coach who led WCSU to the Final Four before leaving for Tampa.
“John always talked about building you up as a person,” Palombo said. “You know that some of these girls aren’t gonna go on and play in college, but you’re still building life skills. That’s definitely what I want to take into my experiences, I want to teach the girls that. That comes from what he told me. I want the Lawrence girls thinking about being a good person and having the right mentality off the field.
“Jerry Lucey, he was just phenomenal. He just had a million drills that he taught us. I called him after I got the job and said can you help me with some and send them over and he said he had them all in his noggin. He would preach just building up speed of possession in building from back. I’m a big believer in that, keeping it on the ground, working from the back.”
After her stint with Hopewell, Palombo got a teaching job at Clark in 2010 and coached the middle school team, and in 2011-12 she was a volunteer coach at Grover Middle School in West Windsor. Last year she got a job teaching English at Lawrence but did not pursue coaching as she wanted to focus on making the teaching transition.
When Williams stepped down last winter with Shea on the way, Palombo threw her hat in the ring and came out with her first head coaching job. She will be assisted by former Steinert standout Jess Babice, who is in her second year of helping out the varsity.
It makes for a good combination, since Babice was a record-setting scorer in high school and at Rowan University, and Palombo was an award-winning defender at HoVal and West Chester.
With both coaches coming from elite winning programs in both high school and college, one of their goals is to instill a positive attitude in the Cardinals and make them understand what goes into a winning tradition.
“We talk to them about it, tell stories, things like that,” Palombo said. “We’re both very calm, we’re not yellers, but we’re just talking to them and giving them that boost. I think if they see they can play well together and put passes together, if they start believing in themselves and start winning, they’ll like it more and they’ll think ‘We can do this.’”
As the coach indicated, she is a big believer in the short passing game, rather than just try and counter or boot the ball long.
“There may be a time or place for that,” Palombo said. “I like possession, I like keeping the ball on the ground. That’s what I’ve been taught. It’s the best soccer. If it’s in the air, it’s got to be in the air for a purpose.
“We’re big on that, keep it on ground and keep it working. They’re working on that and it will come. They’ll be finding each other.”
Although Lawrence lost some valuable players last season, including both goalies, Palombo sees potential on this year’s team. She was encouraged by what she saw during the summer league.
“We have a good core group of seniors that have talked to me, and they’ve been open and they’re excited,” Palombo said. “I think they can do well. They have to believe in themselves. A lot of the mentality needs to change and they need to keep that mindset of keeping it on the ground and finding each other.”
If so, they may just find their way to better things.