Jon Spencer took an early-morning flight from Tampa, Fla. last week, landed at Los Angeles International Airport and began the slow commute back to his home in Santa Ana. He still had a full afternoon of work ahead of him, but those would be the most fulfilling hours of his day.
Spencer is beginning his third season as head coach of the Servite boys’ soccer team. Prior to taking the job, he played collegiately for UC Irvine, scouted professionally in Europe and spent time as a head coach and general manager for a now-defunct Orange County-based semipro team.
He knew little about Servite or its soccer program when he applied for the job two years ago, but right from the start the pairing seemed like a match made in heaven.
Spencer guided the Friars to the Southern Section Division I finals two years ago, then got them back to the semifinals last March. Servite opened this season as the No. 4-ranked team in Division I, a bit of a surprise considering the talent the Friars brought back, but Spencer said what matters is where a team finishes.
“Hopefully, we’ll learn from the last two years and this will be the season we take things over the top,” he says.
Servite has a solid base to spring from.
Defensive player J.T. Cook and goalie Keith Murphy were the Trinity League co-Defensive Players of the Year last season, helping the Friars notch 18 shutouts. Murphy surrendered eight goals in 1,970 minutes for a 0.325 goals-against average, the lowest ever recorded by a Servite keeper.
Spencer said Cook and Murphy aren’t just spectacular on the field, but leaders in every facet.
“J.T. and Keith live by the example of what we’re trying to accomplish as a soccer team and at Servite,” he says. “They do all the things some players aren’t willing to do.”
Spencer said if his flight from Tampa was delayed last week, or for some other reason he couldn’t get to a practice on time, he’s content in knowing Cook and Murphy would conduct drills as if he were on the sideline.
On the field, Cook is versatile, tenacious and extremely fit. He can play on the back line of defense or fill in at any midfielder position.
“We ask him to do specific roles and he does them week in and week out,” Spencer says.
Murphy is not the biggest or quickest goalie, but has a knack for making the big saves at the most crucial moments.
“In any game of soccer, there’s always going to be scoring opportunities and he’s a wall behind the back line,” Spencer says. “We have an exceptional back line, but he still makes the big saves.”
For many teams that are stacked on the defensive side of the field, it’s tempting to cheat some other defenders up front and try to get them in on scoring plays, but Spencer prefers to keep the field balanced.
“My very first year at Servite we relied on defense to carry us, and last year we were more successful offensively,” he says. “This year, we’re taking it another step further. We really want to step out front and control the tempo and the way the game is played.”
That message starts with Spencer, but it’s Cook and Murphy who will lead by example.