By Brian Deakyne
MIDDLETOWN – Ken Santos comes from a decade-long tenure at the helm of the Red Bank Catholic High School girls’ soccer program – a squad that always had a surplus of talent to choose from – that led to a number of divisional, conference, and state championships.
So when Santos became the girls soccer coach and director of athletics at Trinity Hall, an all-girls high school in the Catholic tradition on Leonardville Road, it was an adjustment.
In fact, after a fall season that produced two first-ever sports teams with soccer and cross-country, Santos and the Trinity Hall staff left it up to the 30-girl student body to choose in which winter sports the institution would participate..
“It was a process that in the fall, we had to look at two sports that would be best fit for 30 girls,” Santos said. “We couldn’t have a program that would have a roster of more than 15 kids, so we went with one that was about 14 with soccer and then cross-country had about seven or eight people participating.”
For Santos, starting an athletic program from scratch was a different experience than that of taking Red Bank Catholic teams deep into the postseason.
“I had some very strong freshman players that are going to be the core of the team moving forward,” said Santos, who led Trinity Hall soccer team to a 4-8-2 record in its inaugural season. “It was a somewhat humbling experience. I’m coming from a team where I had 20 great players on the roster at the varsity level. But, the girls were so excited to be a part of it and to be a part of a varsity team. I’m looking forward to building it.”
The Trinity Hall cross-country season was highlighted by a second-place finish at the New Jersey Catholic Track Conference freshman championships
The students, who are required to play sports in two of three seasons to satisfy their physical education requirement, elected to play basketball and swim during the winter.
The school does not have a physical education department.
“After the fall, we just sort of asked the girls what they wanted to play and they chose basketball,” Santos said. “We knew we had some pretty good swimmers, so that team just sort of fell into place.”
Because so many of the girls are required to play at least two sports, participation of the small student body has been near-perfect, Santos said. Additionally, the small number of students gives those athletes an opportunity to play a sport that they may never have tried before.
“We are encouraging the girls to try different sports,” Santos said. “Go out, love it, have fun. This might be the only year that you have that opportunity. If we enroll 50 or 60 kids next year and we only have two teams, we’re not going to be able to have 25 kids on the soccer team.
“We’re seeing a lot of cross-over, as well. We have soccer players that are playing basketball and basketball players that are going to be playing lacrosse in the spring. It’s worked out well so far.”
While having an opportunity to play multiple sports is special for the students, it’s just as rewarding for the coaches who have been given the freedom to develop programs.
“It’s been tricky, but it’s a good experience for the coaches,” Santos said. “We’re letting them go out there and build their own programs the way they want to. It’s very rare to step into a situation like that.”
As for Santos, coming in under .500 in his first year with a soccer program has changed his outlook on the sport after a dominant decade one town over.
“I can appreciate the hard work that goes into a three-month season,” Santos said. “It’s such a roller coaster ride with a girls team and without the pressure of getting into the playoffs, it was more of a teaching year for me.
“After going to so many tournament finals at RBC, I think I took it for granted, but I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to need to do more here than I did over the past 10 years at Red Bank Catholic. It’s nice to feel that winning, and I can’t wait to do it and share it with these girls.”
The goal is to – one day – have an athletics program to complement the academic life at Trinity Hall, much like the one that has developed at Red Bank Catholic.
“The focus here is on academics,” Santos said. “It’s an academic school with a stemmed curriculum. But we hope for there to be a great sports program, too. That’s my goal. I hope that one day girls are fighting to get in. What I had (at Red Bank Catholic) was really special; the program sort of feeds itself. We hope to have that down the road.”
Trinity Hall is planning to offer lacrosse, track and club golf during the spring.