Soccer coach, Jedi Knight or both?
In "The Empire Strikes Back," there is a scene where Luke is training to be a Jedi Knight; he is whining about not being able to pick up his X-wing fighter that has sank in the swamps of Dagobah.
Yoda tells him he has the power to do it, he just has to believe in himself. Luke claims Yoda “wants the impossible” and sulks away. Yoda then shows him up by calmly picking up the fighter as if it was a piece of paper. By trusting his instincts, Yoda was able to accomplish that which seemed difficult because he worked hard to reach his goal.
Jeffrey Stelly, now in his third year as a history teacher at Ayden-Grifton High School, was given an equally hard task. He was asked to save a recently revived cross country program that was gone for decades, but had lost its coach.
After two seasons, Stelly turned the Chargers team into one of the best in the conference, finishing in third place behind South Lenoir and Washington.
“I went into a team that didn’t have a home course and was a very small program,” Stelly said. “I inherited a lot of great talent, like Haley Ward, Caleb Litchfield, and Eli Dawson, who are all world class runners.
"The boys will still be keys to that program in this upcoming season."
Stelly worked with the Town of Ayden to have a course built at the Ayden District Park where the Chargers hosted their first meet last season.
With his success at one sport, he was asked to perform another miracle: take over and rebuild the Ayden-Grifton boys' soccer team. While the Chargers’ vaunted football team has made 17 consecutive trips to the state playoffs, the soccer team hasn’t seen postseason play since 2013. Stelly, who has long followed the English Premier League and MLS, seemed like an obvious fit.
Having three coaches in as many years can be rough on the stability of a team and its program. The program went 15-4 in 2013 but sank to 1-16 last season. With yet another opening at the head coaching position, Stelly was approached by A-G Athletic Director Paul Cornwell to see if he was interested in the position.
However, this was not a simple call to make. To take on the soccer coaching job, it meant he had to leave the cross country position.
"He came in as a new teacher," Cornwell said. "We needed a cross country coach. He didn't have any experience and did some amazing thing with it. He's a hard worker and is dedicated to doing everything that comes along with coaching, like keeping up with kids, training, etc.
"He stepped up and did a great job."
Stelly said he called everyone he could think of to get advice on whether to accept the position.
“It took a few weeks to make that decision. It wasn’t taken lightly,” Stelly said. ”I loved and appreciate my time with cross country and I was excited about all that we were able to accomplish. We had great kids and some amazing parents who supported us the last few season.”
Cornwell said Stelly adds stability to a program sorely in need of it.
"With Coach Stelly being in the school, talking with the kids, being after school to hold mini-practices has been a great asset," he said. "He's got a lot of enthusiasm and will help to bring this program right where it needs to be."
Stelly said he wanted to do what was right for the school.
“I could see that there was an interest, but the kids wanted to believe we had something good going on. They didn’t want to play just to play,” Stelly said. “Soccer has always been a passion of mine. I wanted to instill some of the passion into my kids. The players here at Ayden-Grifton always have a lot of support from parents in all the sports we have. I want to see that built back up too.
"I want to see crowds coming to cheer our kids on.”
Cornwell appreciates Stelly’s enthusiasm about the sport and desire to make it strong again. Likewise, Ayden-Grifton’s principal, Dr. Chena Cayton agreed with Cornwell in assessing Stelly’s enthusiasm.
“He volunteered to do it," she said of Stelly. "He knew that we didn’t have a coach heading into this new school year and that there was a real need for it."
She continued, "He’s all about soccer right now. He’s very excited about rebuilding the program. He’s been very active in recruiting kids from his class and all around the school that he thinks would be a good fit.. He’s got a great relationship with the kids that he has brought into the program. We’re looking forward to seeing what they can do on the field. His youth and energy will help to make him a valuable asset to the soccer team.”
Stelly hopes to recreate the magic he has done with the cross country program.
“I’m coming at this just like I did with cross country," he said. "We have eight returning players. ... We’ve done a lot of digging to get people excited and revved up about this team."
Stelly is realistic about the program's future.
“North Lenoir and Greene (Central) have very strong programs right now," he said. "West Craven and Washington are pretty tough too. We have some things we are still figuring out and some big holes to fill in some key spots. It’s hard to say where exactly we are going to be until we start playing."
He's certainly gained the respect of other coaches at A-G, including head baseball coach Corey Skinner. Stelly has been the Chargers' JV baseball coach the previous two years and has worked closely with Skinner.
“I think Coach Stelly will do an outstanding job and bring some stability to out soccer program. He has a passion for the game, a passion for young people, and a passion for learning, which will all lead to his success,” Skinner said. “His patience with young players will pay dividends in creating depth within his program.”