By Keith Knepp
NAPPANEE — Monday night’s match on the main soccer pitch at Wellfield Park in Nappanee wasn’t important to most people. It did, however, mean the world to a very select group of men.
While no one overtly said it, the underlying implication was there and everyone knew it. This was the farewell party for former NorthWood boys soccer head coach Brad Duerksen and his family, including wife Maggie and sons Skyler and Chase.
The evening’s contest was billed as the program’s annual alumni soccer game. Former Panthers from the past quarter century dug out their cleats and shinguards and made sure the ibuprofen bottle was in the medicine cabinet before heading out the door for the match, which put the word “friendly” in friendly.
Monday’s game was fun to watch. Many parents, wives and even children of the men on the field sat in folding chairs or in the bleachers to cheer on their loved ones for two 45-minute halves. Current and former NorthWood students, as well as fans of the program, also made their way to the park for the exhibition match.
The game also meant one more time on the field together for the most successful class of NorthWood soccer players in the program’s 26 year history. Graduates of the class of 2021, including the dynamic captain trio of Andre DeFreitas, Sebastian Guillen and Kayden Newcomer, along with goalie Andrew Graber, who came within one goal last fall of reaching the program’s first state championship game, took to the turf together one last time. Next year, DeFreitas will be playing at Bethel University, Newcomer at St. Francis University and Graber at Goshen College, meaning their next soccer encounters likely will be as opponents in Crossroads League matches.
But let there be no doubt, Monday evening was all about honoring Coach Duerksen, who led the NorthWood program for all but the first two years of its existence, bringing the program from an 0-16-1 record his first year to 15-4-3 mark in his final campaign. Along the way, Duerksen coached his older son, Skyler, for four years prior to his graduation in 2020 and is currently doing the same for his younger son, Chase, who just completed his sophomore year at NorthWood.
However, next month, the Duerksens, minus Skyler who will return to Indiana University in Bloomington for his sophomore year, will be moving to Florida, where Brad will be taking over the soccer program at the newly-created Horizon High School in Winter Garden. While Duerksen admitted that in his first year at NorthWood he “had to teach them how to actually play soccer,” he likely won’t have that same problem at his new post since most of his incoming players have extensive high school and club experience with some of the best programs in central Florida.
“I am truly overwhelmed with all the kind words and thoughts from all of the coaches, former players and their family members,” said Duerksen after the game. “It was so wonderful to catch up with all of the former players. It’s really special seeing these young men become fathers themselves. That’s what it is really all about … life lessons learned through the beautiful game of soccer. I have nothing but love for these coaches, young men, and the entire NorthWood soccer program. I am so proud of the program Egbert and I have built together over the past 24 years.”
The “Egbert” he was referring to is Egbert Dijkstra, who stood on the NorthWood sideline alongside Duerksen for the entire ride. He will remain the right-hand man for the next coach, who happens to be his son, Kyle Dijkstra, also a former assistant to and player for Duerksen.
“I think tonight’s game shows what Brad has meant to the soccer program and the players who were in the program through the years,” said the elder Dijkstra. “Former students who played in the early 2000s through last season’s players were there to be able to play with their head coach one more time before he leaves to take over another program. It shows you that the soccer program at NorthWood is a close knit family. Coach Duerksen has built the program from the ground up from a new and unfamiliar sport to most in the community to a respected and successful program in 24 years. On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed coaching with Brad for the same 24 years, we’ve become best friends and I will miss having him on the sideline. But my family and I are happy for this opportunity for Brad, Maggie and Chase and we wish them nothing but the best and a lot of success on the soccer pitch.”
The new head coach, Kyle Dijkstra had this to say about the evening: “The alumni game is always fun to see a lot of the guys you played with again. And now as a coach, it’s been even more fun to see the players I’ve coached come back and play. It serves as a great way to catch up with everyone. It’s an honor to be able to take over something that Coach Duerksen has built over 24 years. I’ve had a great time being involved in the program as a player and coach, and I know the hard work he has put into this program, so I know not to take the opportunity for granted. I’m extremely excited for the future of the soccer program.”
For his part, Duerksen is excited that the program he built will be in familiar and competent hands. “I am excited to see Kyle Dijkstra and the other coaches continue this tradition,” he said.
The game got visibly slower as the second half went on, but no one seemed to care. The final score was 4-3. Or was it 3-4? It didn’t really matter. What mattered is what the men on the field represented — a quarter century of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears that went into building one of the strongest high school programs in the region.
Following the game, hugs were exchanged, pictures taken and tears shed. For the Duerksens, it wasn’t goodbye. It was “see you later.” Thanks to social media, there will be a lot of people in Nappanee and Wakarusa who will be following the Horizon Hawks boys soccer team. While the Duerksens are trading the red and black for purple and orange, they undoubtedly always will be Panthers no matter where their lives take them.