Story by Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
Jake Nerwinski is heading into his third training camp with Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps and can safely be termed one of the many success stories authored during Mike Perone’s 40-year tenure as Notre Dame High head coach.
Before he was ever a star at the University of Connecticut or playing professional soccer, Nerwinski had one goal – to play for Perone.
“When I was in grammar school in Jackson, my dad would tell me I would be going to Notre Dame and playing soccer for coach Perone,” Nerwinski said. “I didn’t really get how special it was until he took me to a game when they played Steinert under the lights at Mercer County Community College. At that moment, I was hooked in and couldn’t wait to play there and for coach Perone. “
Stories like that have been recounted by hundreds of players over the years, including Nerwinski’s father, Kevin. Thus, it’s not surprising that Perone is getting one of the highest honors a New Jersey soccer figure can receive.
On March 10, the Trenton native and Lawrenceville resident will be one of 10 players or coaches inducted into the Soccer Coaches Association of New Jersey Hall of Fame. The noon induction luncheon will be at the Pines Manor in Edison.
“It is an honor that is well-deserved,” Kevin Nerwinski said. “The success he experienced as the Irish coach will be hard to match. In each decade, his teams were consistently a force in the soccer-rich area of Trenton.”
Asked his reaction when he got the news, Perone said, “It is a little overwhelming. I look at some of the names who are in that Hall of Fame, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’
“It’s nice to be recognized,” he continued. “Being honored by the guys that are [still coaching], you feel like you accomplished something in their eyes.”
Perone rightfully joins the exclusive club, as his body of work for a half-century speaks for itself. He was an All-County player at Trenton Central High and an All-Conference performer at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey). He took over a successful Notre Dame program at age 24 and promptly guided the Irish to a state title in his first season.
Thinking it was easy, Perone quickly learned otherwise. He didn’t win state titles every year, but he won his share. From 1977 to 2017, Perone’s teams won 501 games, nine South Jersey Non Public A championships, six state crowns, two Mercer County Tournament titles and nine Colonial Valley Conference Colonial Division championships. More than 60 Perone products played college soccer, with nearly half of them going Division I.
At his side the entire time was Notre Dame graduate Ziggy Zegarski, as the two formed Mercer County’s version of Batman and Robin.
“This one was a no-brainer,” Zegarski said of Perone’s induction. “Mike did it all. He did everything you could ever ask from a coach and an educator. His teams won; they played the right way … and represented the school well – both when they were at Notre Dame, and a lot of them after they left.”
Perone appreciates the praise, but is quick to volley it right back to Zegarski.
“Forty years with Zig and I together,” Perone said, marveling at the thought. “There’s so many guys that we worked with that kind of stayed with us the whole time. It was … kind of a family type atmosphere, especially with Zig. He stayed with me the whole time, I really appreciated that.”
There were other assistants who also stayed for decades, including Bruce Henry, Bruce Angebranndt, Pete Gaeta and current Irish coach Rich Leedom. Perone respected each one and would often take their advice during games.
“It was nice to have eight or 10 eyes watching you on the sidelines,” Perone said. “Everyone sees something a little different, and everyone brings in their own little thing to add to it all.”
What made Perone unique is he was as respected by players when he was in his 20s, as much as when he was in his 60s. He changed with the times.
Kevin Nerwinski came along in 1981, and his son more than 30 years later. Both felt the same way about their mentor.
“I am grateful to have been coached by the same man as my dad,” Jake Nerwinski said. “I believe that is a testament to how successful coach Perone has been for countless decades.”