Essex High School girls varsity soccer coach Kevin Barber talks to his team Saturday during halftime of the program’s alumni game. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Essex High School varsity soccer head coach Kevin Barber sat perched on a water cooler Saturday evening listening to his players. He soaked it in, similar to the torrential downpour that fell moments earlier, and then pulled out his dry-erase board.

It was time to get down to business.

Taking over the helm this year from 37-year coach Bill O’Neil, Barber is the second-ever coach in program history. Three days into preseason, last Saturday was the team’s first scrimmage but an unconventional one: current players versus EHS alumni.

According to Barber, Saturday was about goals but not necessarily the final 1-1 score.

“If you set the right goals, and you are moving to achieve those goals, then the winning will follow,” he said.

Coming back from a 1-13-1 season last year, Barber stressed the importance of problem solving and working together as a unit. Last year’s season showed great chemistry, O’Neil said, which Barber is working to expand.

“My goal is we’re better not only at soccer, but better at being people and community members at the end of the season than we are right now,” Barber said. “If we can build that kind of bond, and that kind of team, then we’ll be successful.”

As a new coach, he recognizes the “steep learning curve” ahead for both him and his team. He expects his players will soon see “just how different things will be.”

Though Barber said he knows he has a large footprint to follow, he said the program is taking a new direction with him at the wheel.

“It’s not better or worse, it’s just different,” he said. “It’s a new era.”

O’Neil may have retired but isn’t out of the picture just yet. He’s set up scrimmages, outlined the budget and organized the annual jamboree. For these, among other reasons, Barber said the veteran is an asset to the program.

While his decision to retire — from coaching both soccer and EHS boys hockey — didn’t come lightly, O’Neil felt it was time to pass the torch. Barber, he said, is a great person to be on the receiving end.

From the time O’Neil kick-started the program in 1979, he said he’s watched the game evolve from backyard play to a sophisticated and skilled activity. Now, Barber is cultivating that activity by encouraging teamwork and commitment.

He’s brought on four other coaches: junior varsity B coach Brianna Joy, junior varsity A coach Nicole Grinstead and assistant varsity coaches Stephanie Fay and Mike Goodrich.

Joy, Grinstead and Fay are former collegiate players, and Goodrich coached at Albert D. Lawton with Barber, who is a physical education teacher and athletic director at the school.

When contemplating to apply for the job, Barber said he first wanted to ensure he could dedicate all his efforts to it, not just tack another title to his résumé. After thorough thought, the Essex resident decided he was ready.

With 55 players registered for preseason last week, Barber was focused on the immediate feats, including choosing a 17-person varsity roster.

Still, he has a bigger picture in mind. In coming years, Barber hopes to grow the program to 80 players. Creating a climate high-schoolers strive to be a part of is key, he said.

As he spoke, a young girl called to him from down the street.

“Are you playing soccer this year?” he asked her and was met with a resounding “yes.”

Many of his past phys. ed. students, like this one, may end up playing for him one day.

Barber is focused on teaching his players the game. From JV to varsity, there’s a wide range of talent. He said he’s looking for players who are coachable and can problem-solve — fundamentals he says are harder to teach than the game itself.

  Through it all, Baker said he’ll learn just as much as the girls do.

“Going through this, with all of us together, will be good for the program,” he said.

Barber said he’s neither a cheerleader nor a yeller. Rather, he prefers conversations between coach and player, a technique evident during the team’s halftime talk on Saturday.

After setting a goal for the second half, the team huddled together, prepping for a chant that will follow them from seasons past to present.

“Essex on three: One, two, three: Essex!” they cheered.