Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pioneers' First Coach: Steve Sobieck

Lost in the rush of the end of the Pioneers' 2011 season and then the holidays was the passing of Steve Sobieck, the first Lynnfield High Football coach. Sobieck died on November 7 at the age of 80. Former Pioneer assistant football and head baseball coach and LHS historian Harris Jameson wrote a column in the Villager about Sobieck in early February.

I thought it would be appropriate for this month's post to take a closer look at the man who helped launch Pioneer football and had great success in the first decade of the program.

Steve Sobieck
War Hero
Jameson noted that Sobieck grew up in Connecticut, graduated from high school in the late forties and then joined the Marines. He fought in the Korean War and according to a 1966 article in the Wakefield Item was wounded and captured during his tour of duty there.

Sobieck participated in the famous landing at Inchon in 1950, according to the account in the Item, and during the fighting, Sobieck took a bullet in the arm and was hit with shrapnel in the knee. Incredibly, that kept him out of action "for only a couple of days."

Later in Seoul, he was hit in the hip by sniper fire.

Later that year, the account goes on, Sobieck along with a squad of Marines were pinned down by the Chinese in the Chosan Reservoir.

"We got out," Sobieck was quoted as saying, "but there were other divisions that were surrounded so they sent us back in by helicopter."

During the rescue mission, Sobieck and four other Marines were captured.

"We were being marched between 14 and 21 days," he told the Item. "I lost count. Actually they marched us at night in 45 degree below zero weather. One night we got our chance. They put five of us in one shack with one guard outside. It was bitter cold and when he came in to get warm we just overpowered him.

"For five days we watched our planes flying overhead and took our bearings from them," Sobieck continued. "At night we made our way in the direction from which they came and eventually caught up with our troops."

After leaving the Marines, Sobieck went on to play football for Boston University and three years after graduating, was hired as a 7th and 8th grade teacher, according to Jameson, and was also named the first Lynnfield varsity football coach.

Head Start
The first varsity season for the Pioneers was 1958, but Sobieck actually started the program in 1957 playing a seven game jayvee schedule with only freshman and sophomores.

Commenting in the bold style he would become known for, Sobieck told Paul Rich of the Wakefield Item that "I feel any one of my boys, with three or four more weeks of practice under their belts, could play on any Junior Varsity team in this part of the state."

Sobieck wasn't far off as his talented young squad compiled a 4-2-1 mark for the season.

As an aside, Rich also noted in the article that "Superintendent Walter J. Vorse and Principal Warren J. Winstead, anxious to see Sobieck's program prosper, have procured for the team Grade A equipment - Lynnfield's uniforms are of better stuff than most surrounding high schools."

Maiden Voyage
Sobieck kicked off the first official Varsity Pioneer football season in 1958 at the age of 27, not much older than many of the 50 players on the roster  that he was coaching.

"Well we can't be too optimistic because of the lack of seniors," Sobieck commented before the season, "But if the boys continue to play as they have done, we should certainly give the other teams some trouble."

Taking on tough competition in the Dual County league with a team lacking any seniors, (they were the last Lynnfield class to graduate from Wakefield High), Sobieck's squad held its own.

The Pioneers won two games and tied one in an eight game season but were competitive in most contests. They lost their first every varsity game to North Andover 20-0 then fell to Lynn Trade 22-6 before tying Hull 8-8.

The next week the Pioneers notched their first ever win by defeating Holliston 22-16.  Bill Burbank ran for a pair of scores and a two point conversion and Eddie Mintiens ran for a TD and a conversion as the Pioneers built a 22-2 lead and held on for the win.

The Pioneers would go on to lose to Wayland and North Reading (in the only game against the Hornets that was NOT played on Thanksgiving Day - it was played the first week of November). They finished the season on an up note by beating Wilmington 8-0.

Birth of a Powerhouse
Playing with a full complement of seniors for the first time, the 1959 Pioneers presented a preview of the powerhouse Lynnfield teams to come under Sobieck.

The Pioneers opened the season with an impressive 36-0 blowout of North Andover, the first of 25 wins by 20 points or more points in the nine seasons Sobieck coached. Two losses followed but the Pioneers kicked into gear and rattled off four straight wins. They lost to Wayland but then notched Lynnfield's first ever victory over North Reading, winning 6-0 to finish the 1959 season 6-3.

Sobieck and the Pioneers would not lose again until October of 1961.

Sobieck's third season was 1960 and resulted in the most dominating performance by a Pioneer team in the history of Lynnfield football. The Pioneers rolled through their Dual County season becoming the only team in the history of the school to finish undefeated and untied.

The 9-0 record and Dual County Championship were impressive enough, but the way they accomplished it was even more incredible. The Pioneers rolled for 410 points, the most in school history, averaging 45.5 points per game. They had wins of 60-0 (over Wayland AND Ashland), 60-6 (Lynn Trade), 50-0 (Westford Academy), 50-6 (Bedford) and 54-12 (Dracut).

The defense was almost as good, allowing only 64 yards on the season, a measly 7 ppg average.

As impressive as some of the wins were, the biggest came against North Reading in a battle of undefeated teams. The Hornets had allowed only six points total coming into the game having posted seven straight shutouts to start the year. But the Pioneers handled them easily 22-6 and finished in third place in Class D in Eastern Mass.

Jameson said of the 1960 team that it "probably ranks as the best team in Lynnfield history."

I would take the "probably" out of that statement. The 1960 team WAS the best in Pioneer history.

The run didn't stop for Sobieck's juggernaut in 1961 when the Pioneers ran off three more wins to extend the winning streak to 13 games. That would be the longest win streak until 1985-86 when Bill Adams' powerhouse would rattle off 13 straight. Neal Weidman's 2009-10 teams won 15 straight regular season games interrupted only by a postseason playoff loss to Austin Prep.

Rout Causes Stir
Controversy arose for Sobieck in October of 1961 after a rout of Bedford. The headline in the Wakefield Item read: "Coach Helpless To Stop LHS' 63-0 Orgy."

Bill Glavin of the Item defended Sobieck writing "despite Coach Steve Sobieck's efforts to hold down the score by taking out his first stringers early, all three of the Pioneers' units repeatedly showed their superiority over their hapless opponent."

According to Glavin, Sobieck took out most of his starters when the score reached only 16-0 in the first period. The second team built the lead to 37-0 at halftime. The second and third teams played the rest of the way, but according the Glavin's report, Sobieck inserted his first offense with less than a minute to play and Frank Berardino ripped off a 64 yard TD run to account for the final score.

There was no explanation as to why the starters came back into the game, but that apparently triggered an article in the "free press" that called Sobieck "merciless."

That prompted a letter to the "Lynnfield Forum" section of the Wakefield Item that was signed only as "The Parents of a boy."

The ten paragraph letter was a vigorous defense of Sobieck by the writer who said he or she only wanted to "disagree with certain meanings of the adjective as they apply to our coach."

"We have never found Coach Sobieck to be without pity, unfeeling or cruel," the writer goes on quoting the definition of "merciless."

The writer notes that the only other word that could define "merciless" is "unsparing" and if that is the case then the writer is "joyous and pleased if others find him so, for who would want or desire their son to play this dangerous game under any other kind of a coach? Must he not build strong bodies in order that the murderous assaults and rigors of this game can be withstood? The very fact that Sobieck loses much poundage during the season is proof that he is indeed unsparing - of himself."

"Coach Sobieck's winning team makes him a target for praise or criticism," the parent goes on. 'Those at the top are always criticized, it is one of the hazards of their lofty position; just as those at the bottom are kicked, a hazard of their lowly position. We would place our money on the winner as we have no desire to come out of the games a loser."

"Our only child trains under Sobieck and he hasn't complained," the letter goes on. "As for us, we give thanks that Sobieck is unsparing in his efforts to build in him a strong body and the courage to meet whatever fate awaits him. We sleep more soundly knowing that our son't teacher has a backbone and not a wishbone."

The writer finishes up by saying "So when the whistle blows and the kickoff starts, we say a silent prayer of thanks that all of the boys on the team had the very best, that something which money cannot buy - an unsparing teacher!"

Streak Stopper
The Pioneers under Sobieck would go on to finish 7-2 in 1961 and 8-1 in 1962 to capture two more DCL titles, making it a run of three in a row. The championship run ended in 1963 although the Pioneers only lost once compiling a 5-1-2 mark.

Sobieck's club went 6-2-1 in 1964 for his sixth straight winning season. The highlight of the year came in November when the Pioneers took on Masconomet in the first meeting ever between the schools.

The Chieftains came into the game riding a 19 game winning streak and Sobieck felt he needed something extra to upset Masco. The coach decided to reach into his bag of motivational tricks and according to the Wakefield Item, Sobieck "pulled a psychological coup de grace at the smoker Friday night by showing the film of the 1960 Lynnfield-Wayland game, which the Pioneers won 60-0. According to Sobieck, no Lynnfield team ever wanted a game more than that one."

Whether it was the result of watching the film or not, the Pioneers came out roaring, building a 16-0  halftime lead on a pair of touchdowns by Steve Farrar. Masco cut the lead to 16-8 in the third, but took a huge gamble early in the fourth period when they went for it on fourth and inches at their own 22 yard line.

The Lynnfield defense, which did a tremendous job bottling up the high-powered Chieftain offense all day, stuffed Masco fullback John Langis for a two yard loss. The Pioneers' Roy Morell went 20 yards for a score on the first play from scrimmage to make it 22-8. Middle linebacker Blaine Donovan added the topper with a 65 yard interception return. Jim Fletcher set up the play by pounding Masco quarterback Paul Richardson just as he threw causing the pass to come out like a wounded duck.

Final Seasons
1965 turned out to be the poorest performance by a Sobieck team as the Pioneers posted a 2-6-1 mark. Lynnfield rebounded in 1966 with a 4-3-2 record in what turned out to be the final season of Sobieck's coaching career at Lynnfield.

Sobieck's last game illustrated for the final time, Sobieck's penchant for using psychological motivation.

In preparing for the Thanksgiving Day game against North Reading, Sobieck had his team adopt a new one word battle cry: Oskeewawo.

According to the report in the Wakefield Item, Sobieck noted that "this was the cry of a band of pioneers that were attacked while moving west by a small but tough band of Indians who were big in size and roamed the countryside with reckless abandon."

Sobieck felt that since Lynnfield's nickname was the Pioneers he "has adapted the call for the invasion of North Reading."

The article went on to say that the word was written all over Lynnfield High prior to the game.

It's not clear how much motivation "Oskeewawo" gave the Pioneers, but the game did turn out to have historical significance. With a 3-2 loss to the Hornets, the game remains the lowest scoring game in the history of Thanksgiving Day rivalry.

According to Jameson's article in the Villager, Sobieck "then left teaching to pursue a career in the insurance field in Florida."

Sobieck finished his nine-year Lynnfield career with a 49-23-7 mar, his .620 winning percentage second only to Bill Rodan's .652 winning mark (101-52-2). His three DCL Championships are the most titles for a Lynnfield team, one better than Rodan and Adams, each of whom won a pair of CAL crowns.

Where Sobieck is probably most known for the prolific scoring of his 1960 team, he actually had better defensive teams overall. His teams allowed an average of 8.5 points per game over his nine season, the best points against average of all six Pioneer coaches and 3 points better than Rodan's 11.5 ppg against.

Jameson summed up Sobieck's career by noting that he "helped LHS become outstanding in athletics and enabled the Pioneers to be noted as a power."

Sobieck was elected to the Massachusetts Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 2002. (Thanks to alert reader Glenn Listernick for that tip.)

Several players left heartfelt messages on Sobieck's guestbook on his passing.

"Doug Murdock, Charlie Meeker, Joe DeBella and I all played for Coach Sobieck on his undefeated Lynnfield, MA high school in 1960," wrote Warren Mason. "He was a great coach and mentor to us in High School."

"Steve Sobieck was my football coach at Lynnfield High School in 1960," summed up Charlie Meeker, one of the standouts on that team. "He was not much older than we were, but he taught us how to win. He was tougher than most, but showed us how we could perform beyond our opponents, to a level even we felt unattainable. Some felt him too tough, but those of us who played for him will forever thank him for showing us what was possible, and that winning took sacrifice and commitment."

Stephen P. Sobieck: 1931-2011

That's it for now. Check back on April 6 for my next post.