Swarthmore College men’s soccer coach Eric Wagner, a former Lewiston High School boys soccer player, stands on his alma mater’s new turf field in the summer of 2019. Submitted photo

Success by means of hard work is an equation that Eric Wagner has long known about, so when he had to do some soul-searching as head coach of the Swarthmore College men’s soccer team it was hard work that he turned to.

It finally paid off for his Swarthmore program this season, with the Garnet advancing all the way to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 in its first appearance in the tournament since 2012. That was the last of the Garnet’s four NCAA trips in five years.

Swarthmore College men’s soccer coach Eric Wagner, a 1983 Lewiston High School graduate, poses with his sons Nick, left, and Camden after Swarthmore won the program’s first Centennial Conference Championship in 2008. Submitted photo

“It was a huge relief to me because we’ve worked really, really hard over the last three or four years really. Because I felt, personally, that it was unacceptable that we were not performing at a higher level, that we weren’t being recognized on a higher level. That was primarily my fault professionally for not doing my job well enough,” Wagner said. “And for us to get to this point again — we’re going to be nationally-ranked at the end of the season now, to be on the national stage for the first time in five years — to me it was a culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of planning. And it was really a big relief, but also a big satisfaction for me professionally.”

Wagner is a 1983 graduate of Lewiston High School, and he said its his hometown that taught him about hard work.

“My blue-collar work ethic, my intensity, my competitiveness, I think those things were all forged on the mean streets of Lewiston,” he said.

His time in Lewiston, and playing for the Lewiston boys soccer program, will always be a part of his soccer DNA, but Wagner said his Swarthmore team’s Sweet 16 matchup against Connecticut College was like a celebration of his post-high school career.

Wagner played at Connecticut College after graduating from Lewiston. It was also at the college that his coaching career started, as an assistant on the women’s team after his college playing career ended.

After Swarthmore went on the road for its first two tournament games, the Garnet had the opportunity to host third and fourth round games. Just getting to the third round “was a bonus,” according to Wagner, after “we kind of overachieved a little bit by making it all the way to the Sweet 16.”

And though the Garnet ended up losing to the Camels in overtime, Wagner said seeing his program and school host such a game and a weekend (defending national champion Tufts defeated Conn. College the next day to advance to the national semifinals) was one of the bright spots of his tenure.

“You know, back in ’08 through 2012, when we had a really good run of seasons, it was all new and it was all exciting, but it was nothing like this past Saturday, where we just had an unbelievable turnout and it was just a huge celebration of this soccer program,” Wagner said. “It was really special.”

Wagner said there were 1,500 fans in the stands (including oldest son Camden, a senior at Conn. College, and younger son Nick, who attends Swarthmore) and another 4,000 watched a stream of the game online. One person who tried to keep tabs on the game, and all through Swarthmore’s season, was Wagner’s high school coach, current longtime Lewiston coach Mike McGraw.

“It was so much fun because he kept in contact with me throughout the season. So I was following them through Eric, and it was getting very exciting because his kids were playing well, they were winning some very dramatic games, and I was real excited for Eric and for Swarthmore,” McGraw said. “And then when they got to the Sweet 16 it was kind of magical, and he said that this was a team that was very, I think the character of them were really good, and the chemistry was really good. And the heroics were really good. So it was kind of exciting for me to see him go through that. Even though I didn’t see any games I had a feeling that he had something special going.”

Traces of McGraw’s influence on Wagner can still be found in Wagner today, though Wagner admitted maybe there’s “not enough” of McGraw in his own coaching style.

“I think that Coach McGraw is such a unique person that I would be really arrogant or really naive to think that there is a lot of him in me, but I would also be completely wrong if I said there’s not something of him in me,” Wagner said. “But he’s more of a fire-and-brimstone guy than I am. … He can really get people fired up and excited. And that’s not my strength. My strength is in managing details and outworking everybody else out there. Now that, I think, is probably the closest that I come to Coach McGraw, is that he is a tireless worker. His blue-collar work ethic and his willingness to just grind and grind and grind to get things done and get them right, I know that part of that I learned from him.”

Wagner didn’t stop learning from McGraw when he graduated from Lewiston though. He has come back in recent summers to help out with McGraw’s soccer camp, and last year he ran a college ID clinic at the school at his alma mater.

“Just like it is getting home to see my parents, it’s something that I absolutely savor every moment I’m up there,” Wagner said. “And so last summer was particularly exciting because we tried out a new program, where we did a college recruiting clinic for local high school kids, and it was really neat because we had never done that before, and I think it went over really well.”

McGraw called it a “pretty cool thing” to have Wagner come back in the summer.

“Not only do I get a college-level coach to do drills with, to coach kids to, to interact with them, but he gets a chance to come home and see his mom and dad a little while,” McGraw said. “And sometimes he’ll meet up with his family and complete a vacation together somewhere here in Maine. So it’s pretty neat.”

Just like McGraw kept an eye on his former player’s team during the season, Wagner has been a fan from afar of the Lewiston boys soccer team’s recent run of success.

“As a Lewiston alum I’m just filled with pride,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more impressed, I couldn’t be prouder of the Blue Devils than I am these days.”

And maybe in the future there will be another path-crossing between Wagner’s playing career and his coaching career.

“I’m just hoping that one day soon we’ll be able to have one of those Blue Devils come down and play for us,” he said.

He’ll at least know that he’ll be getting a hard-working player.

Swarthmore College men’s soccer coach Eric Wagner, a former Lewiston High School boys soccer player, stands on his alma mater’s new turf field in the summer of 2019. Submitted photo

Swarthmore College men’s soccer coach Eric Wagner, a 1983 Lewiston High School graduate, poses with his sons Nick, left, and Camden after Swarthmore won the program’s first Centennial Conference Championship in 2008.


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