On Wednesday afternoon, Tom Flanders donned a black polo shirt and took a bus to Warwick Vets for a soccer game.
It was a strange day.
For 20 years, if Flanders was going to a soccer game at Vets, he was wearing blue, and he wasn’t taking a bus. Flanders was one of the longest-tenured coaches in the city, having been with the Vets girls’ soccer program since 1993. He was an assistant for three years and the head coach for 17 years.
He’ll remain a head coach this year, but he’ll do it at Pilgrim. It’s his alma mater and the school that his children will attend in a few years. He felt the time was right to make a move.
That didn’t make Wednesday any less strange, as Flanders arrived at Vets for the Warwick Vets Fall Soccer Tournament and headed to the visitors’ bench.
“Coming in here is strange. My kids asked me, ‘Is it weird for you coach?’ I said, ‘I’d be lying if I told you no,’” Flanders said. “You go to work someplace for 20 years and it’s what you know. I took a bus here today. It’s going to be different.”
The Pilgrim job came open when another longtime coach, Mike Weber, retired after 13 years at the helm. Weber led the Pats to 38 wins in his last three years, one of the program’s best-ever runs. He left on a high note, having taken the Pats to the Division II semifinals last year.
Flanders teaches at Vets but has spent the last few spring seasons as the head coach of the new Pilgrim girls’ lacrosse team. Knowing that his children – including a daughter – are set to attend Pilgrim, and knowing that the job might not open up again anytime soon, he pulled the trigger.
“My kids will eventually go to Pilgrim,” Flanders said. “I thought I may lose the opportunity. The last time the Pilgrim job opened was 13 years ago. My daughter’s nine. I said, ‘Let’s do it now.’”
The move created a game of musical chairs in the Warwick soccer scene. Flanders is across town, while former Toll Gate assistant Fred Schweizer is moving to Vets to take over as the head coach there.
For Flanders, it’s an exciting move – but it wasn’t easy.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “There’s good, quality kids here. But it’s exciting. It’s a new challenge.”
Both Pilgrim and Vets have hit rough patches in the last five to 10 years. Pilgrim was the first, which ended up as a silver lining. The Pats moved to Division II in 2006, and struggled for several more years before turning everything back around in 2010. The last three years have been dream seasons.
The goal for Flanders is to keep the momentum alive.
“Mike Weber did a great job,” he said. “The kids are hard workers and I know he instilled that in them. It’s nice coming in here. They’re accustomed to winning. Hopefully, we’re going to add to that total.”
The Pats have some work to do. Much of last season’s nucleus was lost to graduation, and all three of the team’s big seasons were built by talented veterans. It’s a lot of talent to replace.
“They lost 11 seniors and two others to prep school, but it’s a good situation,” Flanders said. “We’ve got good young kids here. They want to learn, they want to get better. I’m excited. All of our practices have been great.”
Flanders has challenged the Pats in the preseason, and they responded with a championship in last Wednesday’s tournament.
It’s a good sign.
As the Pats celebrated on the Vets field, it was another strange moment for Flanders. He didn’t have to play his former team in the round robin tourney, but it’ll happen in the regular season. Vets is also down to Division II this year, which means the teams will renew their rivalry.
“It’ll be very, very difficult,” Flanders said. “The kids that I left here are fantastic kids. Fred’s going to do great things over here.”
Flanders hopes he can do great things, too – across town.