By Connor Iapoce
County College of Morris women’s Soccer head coach Roger Stephens says he is not the cliched soccer coach screaming from the sidelines of a soccer pitch during a close match; if you watch him on the field, he is mostly taking notes to discuss key improvements with his team during halftime.
Stephens, who also works as the assistant athletic director, has his own room in the athletic department’s main office the Health and Physical Education building, adorned with newspaper articles, pictures of past soccer teams, and plaques detailing athletic accomplishments. His name has been a staple of CCM athletics for three decades as he has been involved, on-and-off, within the Titans athletics department since 1985 having led both the men’s and women’s soccer programs at various points of his CCM career.
The players he has coached include 13 All-Americans and five regional players of the year. Stephens has also taken pride in academic success, with many of his players keeping above a 3.0 GPA. At the end of 2011, Coach Stephens left a 21-year career as the CCM men’s soccer coach with a record of 244-102-17 or a .696 win percentage.
Soccer has not always been the main focal point of Stephens’ life. During his childhood in New Jersey, the sport was not offered around his town. It was in high school that he subsequently decided to focus on soccer. Ultimately, it came down to his athletic future in college.
“Once I got to my senior year in high school, I made the decision that soccer was the sport I really wanted to play,” Stephens said. “A buddy of mine and I went down to visit Duke University in North Carolina, but we both decided to commit to Trenton State, which is known as The College of New Jersey now. The coach from TCNJ went up to see us, and we had visited the school. They were just coming off a national championship. That’s when I kind of made the decision. I actually went out for track that year just to increase my fitness before college, and that was a good move.”
As a midfielder and outside back starter for the TCNJ Lions, Stephens won the New Jersey Athletic Conference and reaching the National Collegiate Athletic Association national quarterfinals. He decided to stay on the Lions team as a graduate assistant coach, working under his head coach who was one of the first in the state to receive a coaching certification.
This prompted Stephens to pursue a certification as well, which he relates as the moment he decided to become a coach, leading to him starting his CCM tenure as the head coach for the Titans men’s soccer team.
“We actually lost my first two games as coach in 1985,” Stephens said. “It was funny because I could see that we were going to have a decent team, and I had a little bit of an idea of what the level of competition was out there. We only lost, I think, one in overtime, and one was lost by a goal. We could see we were going to be decent that first year. They had only won two or three games the year before and we got it back to .500 after that following year. We went to like 13-4-1 at season’s end.”
Stephens coached the men’s team for 21 seasons and let them to the National Junior College Athletic Association Region XIX finals six times to with three titles. The Titans made it to the national tournament twice, including the national semifinal in 2008 where the team finished in third place. Stephens would receive four regional Coach of the Year awards.
Ivan Maldonado is a current player on the men’s soccer team at CCM but got to know Stephens in middle school when he helped coach the team. He credits Stephens for much of his success as a soccer player.
“Coach Stephens made me more than just a better soccer player,” Maldonado said. “He knows how to treat his athletes with respect and has a great understanding of the game. I believe that one thing I’ve learned from him is to always be humble. Even after all he’s done, he has found a way to keep his feet grounded. If it wasn’t for him at the right time and place, I don’t think my game would have developed the way it did.”
Stephens took the position as the head coach of the NCAA Division II Felician University men’s soccer for two seasons in 2012 and 2013. He would later return to CCM under a different role, assistant athletic director.
Athletic Director Jack Sullivan was pleased with the hiring of Stephens and believed he was the best man for the job.
“When we had an opportunity for him to come back as assistant athletic director, I knew his track record,” Sullivan said. “His professionalism then always resonated with me. I knew how hard he worked, and I knew the benefit to the college to get him. When he applied, I was elated, and when he got the position, I was extremely happy. We have a good working relationship, our camaraderie is outstanding in my opinion, and we rely on each other heavily.”
The return of Stephens to CCM as the assistant athletic director occurred at a time when the men’s soccer team already had a head coach, but there was an opening under the women’s team.
“When I came back, Jack asked if I would be interested in coaching the women,” Stephens said. “I had coached women at the club level, not at the college level, so that was how that all unfolded.”
This past fall 2017 season found the Lady Titans under Coach Stephens finishing with a 6-5-1 record and a run in the NJCAA Region XIX playoffs when they lost in the Division I semifinal 3-1 to Essex County College.
“We’re excited right now,” Stephens said. “We’ve already had three girls sign which is the most we’ve ever had at this point in time. We had four players visit this past Friday, so we are really kind of excited about what the future holds right now. It is all about recruiting.”
Stephens has taken specific pride in seeing his players succeed academically and move on to four-year universities to continue playing the sport.
“To me, the success of a program is reflected in how many student athletes you have moving on to four-year levels,” Stephens said.
Male athletes that have played under the coach have moved on to NCAA schools ranging from Division I to Division III including Rutgers University, Seton Hall University, Iona College, and East Stroudsburg University. As the women’s coach, it is just starting to take place.
“We had players going down to Tennessee and East Stroudsburg,” Stephens said. “That is one key to success is just the fact you are putting players out there. It just started happening on the women’s side so that is what we are pretty pleased with.”
As the current women’s coach, Stephens aims to get more women playing college soccer.
“We did so much on the guy’s side and we are just starting to break the bubble, so to speak, on the women’s side and getting more women playing college soccer,” Stephens said. “That is going to be the key to be successful is having them move on and be successful and complete their four-year degrees while also being able to continue to move on and play at whatever division levels.”
As his role of assistant athletic director brings him more responsibility, Stephens is aiming to change the view of CCM athletics and bring the support from administration back. He wants to work with the college so that athletics remain important, but the student athletes take priority, so the school is able to help foster success to move on to a four-year-university.
“His biggest strength is his love for this institution and soccer,” Sullivan said. “When you put the two together combined with his work ethic, it is second to none. Top to bottom, Roger Stephens runs a first-class organization program, and I think he’s going to get to nationals with this team very soon.”