If a book were ever to be written about the greatest high school sports rivalries in Mercer County, a major chapter would feature Lawrence-Notre Dame boys’ soccer. Starting in the late ’60s, whenever the two township high schools met on the pitch—usually at Zimmer Field—crowds lined the entire field to catch a glimpse of some of the most heated soccer in the area.
Since the two schools now play in different Colonial Valley Conference divisions and different groups in the state tournament, the only time they could meet in a game that means something in the big picture is in the Mercer County Tournament. But a group of former players who were in the rivalry in the ’70s and ’80s are attempting to take the regular-season match for bragging rights to a new level—one that actually offers a tangible prize.
On Sept. 9 at 4 p.m., the Cardinals and Irish will meet at Rider University for the inaugural Mayor’s Cup, a celebration of soccer in Lawrence, which will be played prior to the Broncs match with LaSalle. Several former mayors will be on hand along with current Mayor David Maffei, who will present the Angebranndt-Perone Trophy to the winning team. The award is named after Notre Dame coach Mike Perone, who retired after 40 years last winter, and the late Lawrence coach, Lou Angebranndt. The game cannot end in a tie and will go to penalty kicks to decide a winner if need be.
The organizers provide a perfect balance between the two schools. Former township recreation director Steve Groeger did not play soccer but is a Lawrence High grad, while township municipal manager Kevin Nerwinski played at ND. Bruce Angebranndt is son of the legendary Lou. Irish coach Rich Leedom went to Lawrence, while Cardinals coach Keith Fithen attended Notre Dame.
“What a curious twist to this game,” Nerwinski said. “I am sure each coach at their core want their team to win but at the same time it means their alma mater would lose. It also shows what a tight-knit soccer community this is when both coaches lived the rivalry game as players and now get to share it with their present players.”
They lived the rivalry and now live in the same Lawrenceville neighborhood.
“He went to one school and coaches the other and I went to the other school and now coach where he played; I don’t know if that’s ever happened before,” Leedom said. “It’s pretty funny that Keith is also my neighbor, he lives right down the street from me, I could hit his house with a stone. My daughter babysits his dog when he goes on vacation. Maybe we should go out for dinner the night before the game.”
Fithen can’t wait for it to unfold, as the more he spoke of it, the more excited he became.
“When I got asked about this opportunity I was just ecstatic,” he said. “I had a chance to talk to some of our returning players and when I told them, they were more ecstatic.”
‘Even though now I’m 99 percent Lawrence, I’m one percent Notre Dame.’
–LHS boys’ soccer coach and Notre Dame graduate Keith Fithen
Fithen, a 1979 grad, played for Perone’s first two varsity teams and first state championship team. After playing at then-Trenton State College, he became the Lawrence JV girls’ soccer coach. After practice, he would go to Lawrence landmark McGuinn’s Tavern with Angebranndt and pick the icon’s brain about coaching soccer. Four years later, he was the LHS boys’ coach.
“It comes full circle,” Fithen said. “It’s great. Even though now I’m 99 percent Lawrence, I’m one percent Notre Dame. When that day comes, my guys are gonna be prepared and be ready. We’ll enjoy the game and the atmosphere, that connection with the township. We’re honoring two great coaches who have meant so much to the township and brought so much success to the school communities.”
Asked what percentage of each school he is, Leedom declined to give an estimate.
“Hmm…I’ve been at Notre Dame for 31 years, that’s a tough one,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think I want to answer that one.”
Leedom, who graduated in 1975, does agree with Fithen about the impact the trophy’s namesakes have made in the rivalry. His respect for Perone was well documented after he was chosen to succeed him as Irish coach, and he has equal admiration for his high school mentor.
“Lou Angebranndt is a legend for a reason,” Leedom said. “He was knowledgeable, he was a leader and he could push you to the next level. He’d give you that confidence that you can play.”
The idea for the Mayor’s Cup came from Rider coach Charlie Inverso, a 1975 Notre Dame graduate who played under Perone predecessor, John Wagner. When Inverso suggested the idea to Nerwinski, he didn’t blink. The two local schools playing at a neutral township site, on the beautiful home field of a two-time NCAA qualifier, as the first game of a high school/college doubleheader. Can you say “No brainer?”
“I think playing the game at Rider makes it that much more special,” said Groeger, who is promoting the game within the community and with LHS alumni. “Not only for the players but to highlight the recent success of Rider’s program. I love the idea as a way to bring focus to our rich soccer history in Lawrence on more than the high school level.”
As does Nerwinski. “Having previously met with the President of Rider (Gregory G. Dell’Omo) in my capacity as municipal manager to discuss ways to help build a better relationship between Rider and the community, I thought this was a great idea to further that goal,” Nerwinski said. “I met with the coaches from Lawrence and Notre Dame along with Steve Groeger to discuss the event, and from this evolved The Mayor’s Cup.”
Nerwinski, a player in 1980, has been an integral part of the rivalry for over 30 years. His brother also played for Perone, along with his son Jake (now with Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps). Not to mention he grew up in Lawrence.
“It was bigger than just a high school soccer game and the atmosphere was always electric,” Nerwinski said. “As a Lawrence resident, it was the first time playing against guys from our neighborhoods and who we played with on the same Lawrence travel soccer team. Both schools have experienced what it’s like to be the cream of the crop in Mercer County soccer with all-time great players having tremendous college careers and making it to the pros.”
One of those players was the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a Herman Trophy winner who played in the North American Soccer League and was a high-ranking coach for U.S. Soccer. Myernick is still considered the greatest player in LHS history.
Former Irish player Bruno Martillotti, who went to middle school with Myernick, recalled their senior season on opposite sides and provided a glimpse of what the rivalry meant. Earlier in the season, the Irish stunned heavily favored Lawrence to win what was then known as the Mercer County championship.
The two played later in the season in a game that did not count in the standings, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Myernick, who was still fuming over the earlier loss.
“The captains came out to meet the refs before the game, and Mooch is standing there with his leg up, balancing the ball on his foot the whole time with this look on his face,” Martillotti said, still sounding awed. “I mean, how do you counter something like that? And then the game starts and he is just possessed. He’s scoring goals every way possible. They’re up 5-0 in the second half and he’s still diving to try and get head balls. He’s slide tackling. He was unbelievable.”
Evidently, his socks must have been low that day.
“Mooch would roll his socks down and you knew he was ready to score,” Leedom said. “My greatest memory of high school is just playing with Mooch. He’s another guy that commanded respect. I remember playing in the old Trenton Civic Center, and he hit a ball from midfield and cracked the top of the goal post in half. They had to stop the game and come out and tape the post back together.”
Another interesting sidebar to the Mayor’s Cup is Bruce Angebranndt, who grew up in Hamilton and would have gone to Steinert, another super power of the ’70s, had he not attended Notre Dame at the suggestion of Inverso.
“I was on board with Notre Dame the first time Charlie suggested it,” he said. “Dad would be thrilled to see this game and all that it represents continue into the future. So many great players have played for both schools over the years. The family is thrilled that dad and his teams’ accomplishments are being honored in this way. Speaking as a Notre Dame alum, I am also excited for this event and hope it spawns other games of this nature.”
Fithen summed up the event perfectly.
“Every Notre Dame and Lawrence game is special,” he said. “But this one is going to be extra special.”
Any alumni interested in attending or those with questions should contact Kevin Nerwinski at email@example.com.