Coincidence or not, Long returns to lead Hunt boys soccer

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Quite literally, Phil Long was in the right place at the right time to assume leadership of the Hunt High varsity boys soccer program.

The 2002 Hunt graduate was unaware that the Warriors were looking for a new head coach until attending a May spring signing ceremony for a handful of athletes, including Barton College-bound Makala Brown — one of Long’s players on his Wilson Youth Soccer Association U18 Explosion squad.

As athletic director Jon Smith spoke about men’s soccer standout Brendan Nance, also signing with Barton, Smith mentioned to the audience that Hunt was in the midst of a coaching search. At first, Long, a former player at the University of Virginia and professionally with the Carolina Railhawks, didn’t pay much attention to the comment.

But then, the 35-year-old Long began to seriously ruminate on the opportunity.

“I kind of shrugged it off,” Long said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “I didn’t really pay much attention to it. And then I thought about it, and became interested. I got in contact with Coach Smith, and then I guess the rest is history.”

Long quickly emerged as the leading candidate among the four individuals who expressed interest. He replaces Eric Nguyen, who resigned to lead both the boys and girls soccer programs at Greenfield School.

Indeed, fate — however coincidental it might have been — smiled on the Warriors during the search process.

“To have somebody of his caliber kind of by happenstance is pretty unique and it’s pretty cool,” Smith said of Long. “He’s everything we could ask for. We told the guys when Coach Nguyen resigned, that the search started immediately, and it did. Of all the folks that expressed interest and that I communicated with about the job, he was the most qualified. And his background, being a former Hunt student and Hunt graduate kind of means a little bit more, too. The decision was fairly easy once we communicated with each other.”

Long, who was a midfielder with the Railhawks, brings impeccable high school credentials as a player to his first head coaching job at the varsity level. He was the North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association Player of the Year in 2001 and attained McDonald’s High School All-American status as a senior. At Virginia, Long appeared in 27 collegiate games and scored five goals in his midfield role.

Long set Hunt and Wilson County public school precedents in his career with the Warriors, becoming the first Hunt athlete to be named All-American in any sport as well as the first soccer All-American in Wilson County Schools history.

“He’s going to bring some energy and toughness,” Smith said. “He’s going to challenge you. That’s what we want. We want coaches challenging our student-athletes so they can be the best they can be, on and off the field.”

Long has met his new players and has put them through an initial workout. While he didn’t say the Hunt program was broken — the Warriors were 54-16-2 in three seasons under Nguyen — it will be rebuilt, largely because of the presence of a new voice with new ideas.

“One message that I wanted to get across to the players was the opportunity for a clean sheet,” Long said. “I didn’t know anything about any of the players returning or coming in, and this was their opportunity to start over, to work hard and get a starting position. I just wanted to make sure they knew that this opportunity was in front of them.”

Long said his intent was to restore Hunt “back to its former glory days of soccer.” The Warriors haven’t been past the third round of the postseason since 2014, where they lost 2-1 in the fourth round to Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons.

“That’s going to be the goal,” he said. “To return to our former selves.”

Added Long: “What I did notice was that it seemed like these players have been wanting to believe in something. And I see this excitement with them when they play now. They have found something to believe in, that desire, that reason to play soccer. And I’m really excited for what that can turn into.”

Accountability will be one of the key hallmarks of a Long-coached team. His intent is play a style representative of the “beautiful game,” one where the ball isn’t mindlessly kicked around the pitch.

“When you go out there and play against Hunt and come to our soccer field, I want you to know what type of soccer you’re going to be playing against. Whether it be direct, or whether it be slow and methodical with a buildup, it really depends on who you’re playing against. I believe in passing, I believe in runs and I believe in accountability on the field. I believe in the competitive nature of soccer and the passion and the desire that comes with it. Like I said before, I have a vision of how I want it to look.”

That vision will now be free to play out with a new sheriff in town.

“In my eyes, I want to rebuild Hunt soccer in a way that I see fit that will give us the best chance of success,” Long added.