POTSDAM — Joe Stark isn’t the first coach in the 50-year history of varsity girls soccer at Potsdam Central.
But over the course of a career that spanned five decades, he’s had the biggest impact.
“Joe’s been the face of girls soccer here for as long as I can remember,” said Potsdam Athletic Director Mark Wilson. “He has put in so much time to become the quality coach that he is and when you look as his record, which includes 19 sectional championships and 24 consecutive winning seasons, it’s pretty obvious that he’s been doing something right.”
A member of the Sandstoners’ Class of 1981, Stark was named head coach of the varsity girls soccer program for the start of the 1989-90 school year after a two-year stint in charge of the JV squad. Nearly 400 wins later, he coached his last soccer game November 10 at home against Route 11 rival Canton.
“I knew coming into this season that this was going to be my last year for soccer. Count the two years of coaching JV’s and that’s 34 years. It was just time to move on,” said Stark, who began working full-time as a physical education instructor in the Potsdam district at the start of the 1991-92 school year and retired from that position three years ago.
“I was out doing errands the other day. I ran into one of my players from a while back and we got talking about soccer. Later, I started to think, what we talked about happened a long time ago,” he said.
A standout in football, hockey and baseball during his high school days at Potsdam, Stark’s career path started at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake where he studied physical education and competed on the hockey team under the guidance of legendary hall of fame coach Tim Gerrish for two years. Stark continued his studies at SUNY Cortland, where he pitched for the baseball program as a junior-college transfer both his junior and senior years.
Shortly after earning his degree from Cortland, he returned to the Potsdam for the start of the 1987-88 school year where he began serving as assistant baseball coach and JV girls soccer coach while working as a regular substitute in the physical education department at Massena.
Despite not having played much organized soccer, Stark soon became a dedicated student of the game.
“I went to a number of clinics and would go to some of the summer soccer camps over at SLU (St. Lawrence University). Mostly though, whenever I could after practice, I would go and sit in the bleachers over at (SUNY) Potsdam or Clarkson and watch them practicing,” he said. “Having that kind of access, seeing the different drills they ran and the kinds of systems they used for games, was definitely big for me.”
Stark was named varsity girls soccer head coach at Potsdam for the start of the 1989-90 season, taking over the reins from Sarah Fiacco, who had guided the program during the 1980s.
“I had worked with Sarah as the JV coach for a couple of years so it was a smooth transition for me,” said Stark, who posted a 9-9-2 record in his inaugural season and would go on to lead the Sandstoners to the first of their multitude of Section 10 championships in the fall of 1992, one year after he was hired as a full-time PE instructor.
“From the start, I just wanted to do well. I was fortunate to have some talent and to have players who respected the game and really wanted to compete,” he said. “For a long time, we also had a really solid youth program here in Potsdam so by the time the kids came to us, they were pretty well-skilled.”
Since joining the faculty at Potsdam, Stark has worn a variety of coaching jackets. He successfully guided the boys hockey and varsity baseball programs through the 1990s. He’s also mentored the school’s golf and indoor track teams and served as athletic director for several years until Wilson took over the position 11 years ago. He took over as girls hockey coach for the start of the 2006-07 season after his wife, Leigh, had been at the helm since the program started in 2003. Stark intended to continue coaching the skating Sandstoners this winter but those plans have been put on hold due to coronavirus issues.
Under Stark’s tenure as soccer coach, the Sandstoners amassed a record of 385-161-71 -, with the vast majority of the games played in the Central Division of the Northern Athletic Conference. Another 18 sectional titles the first victory in 1992, at both the Class B and Class C levels.
“It was definitely tough competing in the Central. All the games were battles,” Stark said.
“There were times going into a season that I knew we would be pretty decent and it was more a case where it was my job not to blow it. Then we’ve had other seasons where we had to fight through some adversity but we’d get to a point where I’d think, ‘OK, we’ve gotten over the hump’ and you see the kids getting better and better as the year goes on.”
“Over the years, our first goal has always been to win sectionals. We’ve never put as much emphasis on winning the league for the most part but we always felt that we could challenge for it,” he added. “We’ve won the Central a few times but last year, we hung on and won it by a couple of points. We had a young team and we had a couple of tough injuries. We had to grind it out and the kids really showed a lot of character for us to win. It was definitely something we could take pride in.”
Potsdam entered the 2020 season having won six straight sectional championships but lost the opportunity to defend their Central Division and Class B titles when ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic cut short what was already scheduled to be an abbreviated fall campaign.
“With everything going on with COVID, the kids and the district deserve a lot of credit for doing everything they needed to do to follow the protocols. Nobody was sure how long the season was going to last. I’m just glad we had the opportunity to play as many games as we did,” said Stark, who led the Sandstoners to a 7-3 record in his final season. “I don’t know that it has sunk in yet that I coached my last soccer game. This is usually the time of the year when soccer is done and I’m getting ready for hockey season. I guess I won’t really know what it feels like until next August when it’s the start of soccer season and I don’t have to spend any time preparing for it.”
“When I started coaching girls soccer, I had no idea that I would be going at it for 30-some years. The 385 wins is something to be proud of but I would never had this kind of longevity or success without a wife who understood what it meant to coach. Whether it was taking off at the last minute to scout a sectional game in Plattsburgh or sneaking away to a college game after being gone all day teaching and at practice, Leigh has dealt with it the whole time. There was never a question of my commitment to what I was doing,” he said.