HAVERFORD — It doesn't take much convincing to get people to believe that the Haverford School soccer program is different.
That message is effectively communicated by banners and trophies galore on the Main Line. But for those on the inside of the Inter-Ac championship factory overseen by coach Bill Brady, the uniqueness takes on a different slant altogether.
It's not the contents of the trophy case that set the Fords apart, but the path they follow to those trophies. It lies in the challenges issued to elite private schools up and down the East Coast, the early-season tests of their mettle that are often uncomfortable but always beneficial. And it lies in practice sessions that more closely resemble college or even pro workouts in their emphasis on personal technique and team chemistry.
The most recent crop yielded by that process is also the latest to call itself Inter-Ac champions. And even among the individuals that comprised the 2013 success of the Fords, the consensus is that the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual.
"My coach is all about family and love, and really as the year went on, we came so close together,' Haverford School midfielder Conor Bradley said. "We wanted to win for each other; we played every game for each other, and we left everything on the field, with all our hearts, and with everything we had. And it worked.'
"Worked' is an understatement. From a group of talented individuals, the Fords managed to construct a team that was the best in the Inter-Ac and one of the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania. At the center, literally and figuratively, was Bradley.
The numbers — four goals, six assists — may not leap off the page. But the holding midfielder was at the heart of the majority of the attacking moves produced by the Fords. When the question of who shone brightest among the Fords was posed to Inter-Ac coaches, they chose Bradley as the league's most outstanding player.
And for those accomplishments, Bradley is the 2013 Daily Times Player of the Year.
Bradley is joined on the All-Delco team by teammates Shane Bradley (his brother) and Connor Gregory, the Ridley duo of Pat O'Neill and Andrew Kelly, Strath Haven's Nate Engleka and Sean Myers, Radnor's Andrew Lundstrom, Penn Wood's Nyakeh Kamara, Garnet Valley's John Schwien, Sun Valley's Brett Hollenback and Christian Academy's Evan Needs.
Only Needs is making a repeat appearance on the All-Delco team. On an upperclassmen-heavy squad, Needs is the only junior, while the Haverford School trio are all sophomores, representing the only other underclassmen. The All-Delco team is chosen by the Daily Times in consultation with area coaches. â
The ascent of Bradley and his teammates was hardly smooth. The fear that the Fords would endure a rebuilding year was very real. Losing Brett Campbell, the 2012 Daily Times Player of the Year and one of the leading scorers in Delaware County history, and All-Delcos Alex Dubow and Gavin McBride left plenty of holes to fill.
The talent was there, but so was the angst about whether this young team would rise to the occasion. The specter of replacing Campbell, now playing at Georgetown, loomed large. But the remedy was a team approach to shouldering the load. It took time to articulate what that meant tactically — and it required Gregory stepping up and putting 23 goals into the back of the net — but the Fords found their stride soon enough.
"There was a little challenge of who was playing where, but as we went on and got settled into our regular positions, we started playing well,' Bradley said. "... Coming off last year when you lose players like Brett, Alex, Gavin, all them, I'm sure people were questioning. Even some of our players were questioning. But as the season went on, we started believing in each other, and it worked out great.'
The biggest step in assuaging those fears came Sept. 20, even if it was a day the Fords fell on the losing side of the ledger.
"McDonough was a team that was supposedly one of the best teams in the country and all this, and we went in a little scared,' Bradley said of the Maryland powerhouse. "But as the game went on, we noticed that we were just as good and we stuck with them. We tied (thanks to a Sander Yu penalty kick goal), went into overtime and lost. But that's when we knew we had something.'
Only once more all season would the Fords taste defeat, and they also fell in penalty kicks to Hill School in the final of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association tournament. Along the way, they won eight of their 10 matches in the Inter-Ac to defend their league title and topped regional PIAA powers St. Joseph's Prep and Conestoga.
At the heart of it was the family that Bradley referenced, some elements of which are quite literal. In addition to playing with his twin brother, Shane, a central defender, Conor Bradley was bookended in midfielder by brothers Shane and Tucker McBride. Those familial bonds make Brady's job a little easier in some regards.
"Our chemistry, I just know what he's going to do and he knows what I'm going to do,' Conor said of his brother, also a first team All-Inter-Ac pick. "We're always there for each other.'
Conor Bradley's efforts are difficult to discuss in isolation. Much of his defensive success owes not just to his ball-winning ability in midfield, but the fact that he was one component in a skilled spine to the team, extending from goalkeeper Quinn Letter to Shane Bradley in defense to fellow central midfielder Yu. Together, they kept 10 clean sheets on the season, including in five of the 10 Inter-Ac games. The Fords coasted through the Inter-Ac to the tune of a 9-0-1 record.
But in the center of it all was the All-State pick Bradley, as he'll be for two seasons to come. With the McBrides and Letter just juniors and the Fords trio of sophomore All-Delcos, the core of next season's squad is intact with two years of playing experience under their belts.
It may be time to clear out extra room in that trophy cabinet.