High school girls soccer: Johnsburg's Rob Eastland is coach of the year

Rob Eastland
Rob Eastland

Johnsburg girls soccer coach Rob Eastland can't let losses go. After his team started the season 0-3, Eastland had an entire drive down to a spring break in Florida to turn those losses over and over in his head.

All that time to think, however, helped Eastland figure out what was ailing the Skyhawks and the tactical change that could help fix it.

The Skyhawks lost just three more games the rest of the year. They finished 16-6, taking third-place in Class 1A, the best finish in program history (besting a 2013 fourth-place finish).

Johnsburg only lost to two 1A opponents all year, Richmond-Burton in those opening three games and then University High in the 1A state semis. The Skyhawks came from behind, 3-0, to win the third-place game in dramatic fashion on penalty kicks.

Earlier in the postseason, Johnsburg captured its first regional title since 2014 and then won its second sectional title and second supersectional.

For those accomplishments, Eastland was selected as the Northwest Herald Girls Soccer Coach of the Year, as voted on by the sports staff.

Recently, while on a soccer tour to Germany, Eastland, who is stepping down from high school coaching, called home to talk about this season, fish and chips and more.

What was it that set this year apart and made this team special?

Eastland: Having such a key group of juniors and seniors that showed a lot of leadership and a lot of trust in things when maybe at the beginning of the season things weren’t going well. When we worked on things in practice and we worked on tactics and we changed some things up, they went with it. Having some people step up and play positions that they weren’t used to playing.

Who was an inspiration for you as a coach?

Eastland: It’s funny, because growing up in the pro game in England, I had a lot of powerful managers early on in my career, like three people that had coached in the Premier League that coached me. I’d say one of the main people was actually when I came out to America, a guy named Bret Hall. He built a team with a system and I played for him and it was frustrating because I hardly ever got into his starting lineup because he built it around speed. Maybe I played five games a season, but he would pick me as captain because he had respect for me in that way. Just one of them guys that every time I pulled on the jersey I wanted to give everything I got even though I probably took a lot more hits playing for him than I probably did anywhere else.”

When you think back on this season, what’s a moment that stands out to you?

Eastland: I think the two powerful moments for me this season are the final game obviously, just the way the girls created their own little fairytale was something special because I know they’ll have those memories for the rest of their lives. And then one of the coaching moments for me was winning a regional and kind of being disappointed in myself really with the way I handled it, it was one of those moments where you sit back and go I’ve got to do better as a coach.

What will you remember most from that wild third-place match?

Eastland: I’ve just got to put it out there, I was so proud of the kids the way they gathered themselves, found their feet, stood up and were accountable and showed leadership. The seniors and juniors really could have quit and turned it in and they didn’t. They came back strong. I think to be honest with you that was the greatest coaching game of my life.

The funny thing was, I shared a story with them at halftime, usually that would be a time where I probably start yelling, but I told them a story about how when I played the game, the greatest game I ever played in as a player we were down 3-0 with 10 minutes left and we came back to 3-3. I was telling them that and how you just don’t give up. I remember scoring two goals as a player and I missed the last one and our sweeper came up and scored it. I gave them that story and I saw a really good reaction from the girls and they came out. What was awesome was coming back and winning that game, because the game I played in we actually lost in overtime but I never told them that because I thought it would kill them. I guess I felt a bit guilty not completing the story but we always want our kids to go on and do better than we did. They did, they went on and did better than I did.”

What winds you up or are your pet peeves as a coach?

Eastland: I know for a fact I’m horrible to play for. I would not want to play for me if I was a player because I’m just set in my ways, just kind of a strong personality. There’s just so many times where I have to kick back and relax and enjoy it more. I guess one of the biggest things is when the kids come back the day after a loss and they’re happy. It drives me nuts, because it’s like I haven’t stopped thinking about it for 24 hours. They usually know by my face how to act, but they’re actually the best ones at bringing me back around to enjoying it.

Do you have any superstitions around games?

Eastland: No. You know, just don’t approach me for 24 hours after a game, win or lose. It’s something where I’ve never adapted the ability to shut off, which may be one of the reasons why I’m at the point of stepping down. I run over everything in my head. I was the same as a player and that never left me as a coach. So I wouldn’t say I have superstitions, because I don’t really believe in any of that, but I definitely have the don’t approach me for 24 hours personality.

What is your favorite coaching cliche?

Eastland: My favorite cliche has always been ‘Play how you want to be remembered.’ Like I’ve said every time we’ve talked, the trophies are not the important thing, it’s the memories. I know as a player when I sit down with my old friends, 20, 30 years later we still talk about stories and I couldn’t even tell you half the things I’ve ever won as a player but I could tell you about every person I’ve played with.

You’re in Germany right now and you’re from England, if you could see a soccer match anywhere in the world, what’s on your bucket list of soccer matches?

Eastland: You know what’s crazy is, I love going back to my roots and going back to my town of Portsmouth. You can take me to Fratton Park, which is a terrible stadium but it’s just passionate fans, and I’d gladly sit in there and eat a really bad hamburger and a dodgy hot drink or something and just sit with friends and enjoy where it all started.

What’s your favorite movie?

Eastland: You stick “Rocky” on and I cry; you stick “Braveheart” on and I want to go fight people with swords; you could throw on “Gladiator” and I want to go take on the world. I’ve just always been into them sort of movies. I’m a movie nut, I love watching anything like that.

If they were going to give you your own dish at the Johnsburg cafeteria, what would it be? 

Eastland: Fish and chips. It’s probably the one thing I crave and miss the most.

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