Photo: Paul Graham, head coach of the Belmont High Girls’ Soccer team.
Two years ago, a representative of the Eastern Mass Soccer Coaches Association asked Paul Graham, the long-time head coach of Belmont High’s Girls’ Soccer program, just how many wins his teams had compiled in his nearly a quarter of a century at the helm of the Marauders.
Just one problem: Graham never thought to compile his wins record.
“People kept asking me how many wins I have, and I had no clue,” he said, just that it was a significant number since his teams had made the playoffs every year but one since he took over the position in 1993.
“I did know it was a lot,” Graham told the Belmontonian last week on Harris Field during a team practice.
After going through countless high school yearbooks, memorabilia and plaques, Graham discovered he was creeping towards a milestone: 300 victories.
While it’s taken a bit longer to reach that peak – Graham thought he would have crossed the line last year – Graham stands a single victory from the mark.
(Belmont host Arlington at noon, Saturday, Sept. 19)
And while Graham can’t recall the very first win, in doing the research, Graham was flooded with memories of his three decades in charge.
“I’d see a photo and say, ‘I remember his game and I remember this player.’ It was awesome,” he said.
“It was great to reminisce about kids like Linsey Nohl sand Sarah Hilgenberg from days way, way back,” rolling off names and families such as the O’Briens and Muzziolis that he coached for nearly a decade.
“That’s what it’s all about.”
A proud “townie,” Graham was born, raised and educated in Belmont (Belmont High, ’64) before heading to Norwich University (class of 1970 and in the school’s Hall of Fame as a goaltender and iii) and then teaching high school for five years in Milton, Vt.
He returned home after marrying his wife of 45 years, Patricia, and raised two boys – Timothy and Micheal – and two girls – Courtney and Katelyn – as Graham begin a career in the food services business. He is currently New England General Manager at Woburn-based Preferred Meal Systems New England, one of the largest suppliers of school meals in the region.
Graham kept his interest in sports, as a coach starting in 1976 in Belmont’s youth programs – helping bring soccer to town – as a referee and on the Recreation Commission.
Graham was assisting the boys’ program when the girls’ team position became available.
“After coaching boys for 23 years, I was getting burned out,” he said.
With his daughter Courtney on the team, Graham decided to take on the challenge of managing a talented, but subpar program with a total of seven victories in the previous three years.
“I was sick seeing that they weren’t more successful,” he said.
Graham recalled telling Belmont High School Principal Foster Wright that while he could not “promise wins, but I can promise you they will play as a team. The rest will come.”
That change came quickly. Thet first year, the team – with Nohl (who played at William & Mary) and Hilgenberg (an All-American at Wellesley College) – won 12 games and made the tournament, the first of a run of 19 consecutive seasons in the playoffs, three Middlesex League titles, twice named Eastern Mass. Coach of the Year and is in the Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.
Over that time, Graham and his girls have won eight Div. 2 North Sectionals, and subsequently lost each of their semifinal matches, never reaching a state finals.
“I’m 0 for 8, and that’s not good,” Graham said with a smile.
“Someday, it’ll come,” he said.
But if it doesn’t, the cap for Graham for nearly a quarter century of coaching is less the wins then the success his players have on the field and after they graduate.
“Yeah, it’s a great accomplishment, 300 wins, but like I told you, I’m here for the kids,” said Graham.
“I’ve had a ton of honors and thankful for that. But I can’t stress enough if I can help a child reach a goal than I’ve done my job. Wins are great, everything is easy when you‘re winning, but I want to have some part of kids’ success while they’re attending Belmont High,” he said.