The Hibernian Athletic Association has long been a recognizable force in New Jersey travel soccer, and the Hibos are now making one of the biggest and noteworthy leaps in the history of the program.

On Aug. 1, Rutgers coach and 1985 Steinert graduate Dan Donigan officially becomes the technical advisor of the Players Development Academy-Hibernians, which begins its first season of operation. In a nutshell, the Hibernians have inherited what was known as PDA-South, and will now give its members a path to playing academy soccer by aligning with one of New Jersey’s—and arguably the nation’s—top clubs.

“This is an extremely positive move,” said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, now in his sixth year with the Hibernian Athletic Association and second year as president. “We’re one of the oldest soccer clubs in Mercer County, hopefully this is going to take the Hibernians to the next level. Joining a nationally known club like PDA, it’s nothing but positive growth for Mercer County, the Hibernians and area youth soccer.”

It’s not a bad move for PDA, either, according to executive director Gerry McKeown.

“We are excited about the partnership because of the history of the Hibernians club, and we want to help in any way possible to restore that legacy and move forward in a stronger and more positive direction,” McKeown said. “There is a tremendous opportunity given the staff that has been assembled to bring a program that will attract and retain talented players from that community.”

Travel soccer was once the benchmark for players, with teams going to surrounding towns to compete and sharpen their skills for high school. But these days, high school games don’t draw college scouts nearly as much as 15 years ago. In the ever-changing environment of youth sports, academy soccer offers players the best chance to be seen by college coaches as it puts top-flight talent on the field, plays national competition and draws the most intense interest from recruiters.

“The landscape of youth soccer has become more and more competitive, and PDA has a tremendous reputation,” Donigan said. “Since I’ve come back to New Jersey (after coaching at the University of St. Louis) I’ve wanted to create a platform for not only my own kids (who are 5 and 8), but also for kids from Hamilton and Mercer County. I’ve always felt we’ve been pretty fragmented around here when it comes to club soccer.”

In other words, some kids play in South Jersey, some go down the shore and some head north, because there was no true quality club that offered academy opportunities in Mercer. That’s not a knock on all the outstanding travel programs Mercer produced over the years, but it’s a sign of the times that the next step needed to be taken and a club with academy affiliation had to be established locally. The Hibos’ numbers, along with numerous other organizations, have dropped substantially since academy soccer came along.

“Our long-range goal is to make our field an academy-level field, show off the Hibernian club and bring quality soccer to the Mercer County area and try to get rid of this fragmented state we have in our area,” Donigan said. “There’s a lot of different clubs but not one great club. I’m trying to create a club that I’m proud of that kids can gravitate to and play at a very high level—an academy level.

“Having grown up around here and been able to play on some great teams and some great clubs, particularly the Hibos club, I was given a tremendous opportunity by PDA and the Hibos to basically use their club and their facilities to expand the PDA brand into Mercer County. We’re providing a great stage for kids in the area to play for a great club with a great reputation and a great image. We’re also hoping this does something for the Hibernian Club at the same time, to bring in potential members.”

There are 15 boys’ teams in the first official PDA-Hibernians season. Five are new sides Donigan has formed—2003, ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’09 teams—that will play home games at the Hibos. The other 10 are existing teams from PDA-South, which will continue to play at the program’s Westampton complex but under the PDA-Hibernians moniker.

McKeown feels the Hibernians potential to draw outstanding area players makes it a viable partner.

“We recognize that there is a lot of talent in the (Mercer County) area and envision someday that the Hibernian program can be as successful as the PDA parent club,” he said. “We will be able to offer the highest level of competition for exceptional players that wish to participate in the Development Academy.”

As the PDA-Hibernians transition to their new status, several Hibos teams will still play traditional travel soccer this year. Donigan plans on working with DeAngelo and Ancient Order of Hibernians President Vince McKelvey to make everyone happy.

“The first thing Vince and the trustees want to make sure of is the stability of the existing HAA teams that are still here,” Donigan said. “I’m the middle man. I need the PDA, but I’m also very protective and loyal with the Hibernians. This is why this has been able to work out. They know I’m working for both of them, and I have their best interests in mind.”

They will be mostly girls’ travel teams remaining, as there are no PDA-Hibernian girls’ clubs this year. Donigan and Debbie Carr, who runs the girls’ program, are fairly certain that will come in the future. Especially considering the outstanding female talent that PDA has produced since forming in 1998.

“The PDA girls’ side is probably, if not number one, certainly one of the best girls’ clubs in the entire country,” Donigan said. “I’m sure there’s going to be interest on the girls’ side as well but right now it’s strictly the boys’ side at the Hibernian club. I want to establish the boys’ side first because that’s what I know best and what I’ve been able to do. I’ve never been on the girls’ side. But we’ll look into that down the road.”

The biggest mission at present is installing a turf field at the Hibernians complex to allow more teams to play at the Kuser Road facility. The process has already started.

“Turfing out the field is in the plan,” DeAngelo said. “You have to have turf with that number of teams. You need to have stability with your field so if it’s raining you can still have games and practice. That’s gonna come. That has to come.”

PDA falls under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer with academy level teams. Much of that criteria is based on coaches, facilities and, of course, players. This makes the Hibernians one of the few true area academy level programs, along with the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and North Jersey’s Cedar Stars. PDA has been one of the highest ranked clubs nationally, based on the youth national team players it has produced and national championships it has won, along with its success on the academy development side of things.

‘This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my time at the Hibos.’

There are three PDA clubs in New Jersey, including PDA-Shore in Ocean County and PDA-North, which plays in the Piscataway area. Being on the PDA-Hibernians does not mean instant academy status for players this year, as PDA-North is the only one of the three clubs considered an academy.

There is a major “however” to this. Since all three clubs are under the PDA name, each can share players with another. Therefore, if PDA North needs a player, and Donigan feels he has one at that age level who is worthy, he can share him with North and give the player a true academy experience. Conversely, North can send an academy player to the Hibos if needed.

“It’s a very easy pathway for our kids to get to the ultimate level,” Donigan said. “Everybody wants to get to academy level. Right now any of my kids within PDA Hibernian can guest play and have opportunities to go and train up there. It’s almost like a feeder system in place. And I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m hopeful at some point our PDA-Hibernians get academy status.”

PDA-Hibernians has a good foundation to build from thanks to its technical director, whose duties are to oversee the training schedule, identify academy-quality players, set the soccer curriculum and hire the staff. As head coach at New Jersey’s state university, Donigan’s name itself should draw quality talent among kids who want to impress a Big Ten coach.

DeAngelo, who has coached youth soccer for 19 years, added, “When people ask, ‘Who is the guy running the show, how’s he gonna help my kid play soccer?’ the answer is a good one. He’s the coach at Rutgers, he can give your family some direction, he knows the ins and outs, he can get guest speakers, bring in the right people, talk to families who have questions about getting to the next level.”

Knowing the ins and outs is probably the most important detail. There are plenty of less-experienced folks starting what they think is an academy program without having any true knowledge of what it entails. That often leads to disaster.

And then there’s Donigan, who provides a direct link to the glory days of Mercer County soccer and has spent a lifetime involved with, or observing, every level of the sport. He understands not every family can afford academy soccer but is willing to work with them if that’s the direction they want to go. He has also built some of the best connections a coach can have nationally and within the state. His right-hand man is Director of Coaching Paul Tanimae, a coach with the former PDA-South.

“I’m well connected with a lot of local guys who are very reputable coaches and trainers that have been very successful for a long period of time, and I certainly aim to get those individuals involved in the club,” said Donigan, who was still recruiting his staff in mid-July. “I don’t want to bring in just anybody just to have more kids and more numbers, I want to bring in the right people and build this thing from the bottom up through its core. We’ve got to focus on some of the younger teams for sure so we have something for years to come.”

It is a move that had to be made in a county like Mercer, which was one of the nation’s largest youth soccer hotbeds from the 1960s through the 1980s.

“Not every kid wants to be an academy player but they should have the opportunity here in Mercer to go from rec to travel to academy,” DeAngelo said. “With what we’re doing now, a player can go from a rec league in Hamilton to travel at the Hibos and if you want to go to the next level, you’re doing that internally. You’re not going out of the area. I see that as being a positive growth in Mercer County. This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my time at the Hibos.”

There will obviously be financial and recruiting awards for Donigan if all goes well. But he is adamant that his main purpose is to provide a high-level program for his own sons, as well as the rest of Mercer County.

“I’m gonna do what I do to provide quality training and coaching with good people surrounding me,” Donigan said. “Hopefully people find the value and the benefit of it for their kids.”

For information on joining PDA-Hibernians, email admin@pdahibernians.com or call (609) 498-5700.