Before St. Benedict's Prep was a soccer universe unto itself, sucking players and notoriety and titles into its massive orbit, the school was a sleepy preparatory academy situated on the corner of the old High Street and Springfield in downtown Newark, N.J. Back then it was known more for the Benedictine monks who'd roamed the halls for more than a century than anything soccer related.
A notorious helicopter ride helped change that forever.
Tab Ramos is a colossus at St. Benedict's, a statuesque figure that altered the school's soccer fortunes forever. The player with skill for days came to the school in the early 80's when St. Benedict's was a pinprick on the national high school soccer landscape.
The school had never won anything on a state level, let alone a national one. But by Ramos' junior year in 1982, he'd helped the school get to the doorstep of a state championship before going on national team duty in Acapulco, Mexico that November.
St. Benedict's wanted its star back for the start of the postseason and its push for a first ever state title. When Ramos missed his flight back, the school started to panic. And then the gears of ingenuity groaned into life.
Headmaster Edwin Leahy made an arrangement for Ramos to be flown from Acapulco in the dead of night and then helicoptered from LaGuardia Airport to Newark so he didn't miss the game. Desperate times, desperate measures.
Ramos swooped in on his fiberglass chariot just in time, scoring five goals - including the 100th of his career - and recording four assists in a 10-0 win. Later that fall, St. Benedict's won its first state title with Ramos driving the bus.
"The game as a whole in this country wasn't where it is now," says St. Benedict's coach Jim Wandling. "Back then Tab stood out like a sore thumb based on his abilities in the game."
The story itself is legend in the halls of St. Benedict's, if for no other reason than because it provided the initial jumpstart for St. Benedict's emergence as perhaps the most accomplished high school soccer program in the nation's history. In 1985, a year after Ramos left for NC State, Rick Jacobs took over as head coach and began an unprecedented 25-year run. Five years after Jacobs took over, St. Benedict's was the year-end No. 1 in the nation for the first time with an impressive cast of Wandling, Claudio Reyna and Gregg Berhalter leading the way.
Since 1985, the St. Benedict's Prep boys soccer program is 580-29-13. There have been eight occasions when the program was ranked the year-end No. 1 in the nation by a national ranking service over that span. Since Ramos helped St. Benedict's to its first state title, the team has won it 25 more times, and they've won the New Jersey prep state championship every season for the last 24 years.
And yet the bar continues to climb. Since Jacobs passed the baton to his former protégée before the 2010 season, St. Benedict's has entered an era of prosperity verging on the historic. After a 20-2-0 season in 2010, Wandling has guided the Gray Bees to two consecutive undefeated seasons and back-to-back NSCAA No. 1 overall fall national rankings.
The program entered the 2013 season sitting on 54 consecutive wins, and they snapped the state record of 57 earlier this season that St. Benedict's set under Jacobs in the late 90's. Now the program is tracking the national wins record. And it's close.
As the 2013 season heads deep into its first month, the NSCAA national No. 1 Gray Bees have always maintained their ability beat the state record. The national record of 74 straight is in their sights, too.
"We're looking forward to breaking the records," said sophomore captain Johnny Antunes, who chose St. Benedict's over the New York Red Bulls' highly touted U16 academy team. "We have a lot of pressure, but I think we're going to do it this year. We're going to break the record."
St. Benedict's is among the most unique schools of its kind anywhere in the country. Founded in 1868 in inner-city Newark by a group of Benedictine monks from the Newark Abbey, the school quietly set about its work educating the youth of the city. In the interim, it mirrored the dramatic rise, fall and rebirth of an embattled 20th century city. In 1967, monks watched from the school's roof as riots ripped apart the city, and the school closed in 1972 amid the city's darkest days.
A year later, the school reopened with a skeleton crew running the show, gradually rebuilding it into a beacon for students not only in this country but from others as well. Of the nearly 600 students at St. Benedict's, more than 50 hail from abroad. The soccer team has had its share. Haitian Christiano Francois was the team's talisman during its unbeaten run last year, and he polished an outstanding freshman campaign at Maryland last season.
Wandling is a product of Jacobs' tutelage, which means an emphasis on the team ethic. During the preseason, the team runs through two field sessions per day, a team-building meeting and a fitness session to end the day. Right now, that's the Insanity program. Fusing his players together through common hardship is a hallmark of how Wandling wants his program built.
"There's been a culture that's been defined here over the last 25 years, both on the field and within our Benedict's community here that really allows us to use athletics as a vehicle to instill certain character traits in guys," Wandling says. "The program we run here, we dedicate a lot of time to what we do on the field, but we dedicate a whole lot of time to what we do in classrooms regarding team building. There's a tradition here of fantastic soccer having come through St. Benedict's."
Wandling's culture of brotherhood in the St. Benedict's locker room has clearly rubbed off on the field. The Gray Bees haven't just won nearly 60 straight games. They've destroyed most of those opponents.
The closest St. Benedict's has come to losing the last two years? Senior captain Tyler Pinho pauses a moment, mulling the thought before picking out a game against Old Bridge in 2011. St. Benedict's had three starters out injured and only led 2-1 with about 15 minutes left. Within a span of the next 10 minutes, St. Benedict's poured on three more goals.
That moment when Pinho felt like St. Benedict's was closest to losing a game during their current run? The Gray Bees never trailed and won it 5-1.
"If it gets to halftime and we're even tied, you know that second half we're coming out with a little extra something in our stomachs," said Pinho, who's entertaining offers from the likes of Michigan, St. John's and Rutgers. "It's just because we know what we have on the line for all these years."
For now, St. Benedict's will continue to churn out top-level college talent in a soccer world that continues to pull more and more players toward elite club soccer and away from high school. St. Benedict's is a stalwart for the old way. And it's players, in search of the most coveted record in the nation, recognize there's something unique, even special about the Gray Bee way of doing things.
"At Benedict's, it's always a set tradition that it's not just a team, but that everybody on that team is your brother. It's a family," says Pinho. "Instead of spending a lot of time with our real families, all the time we spend with our team makes up for it. All that team-building and all that time of being together is what brings a team together where it puts everybody onto one page. I think that's what leads to our success."