‘A Few Great Men’
Gerken, Conover, Mercer inducted as first IR soccer HOF class
There are two stars adorning the sleeves of Indian River High School soccer jackets. The stars stand as symbols — the program’s way of honoring its rich history and two state championship teams: the first in 2013, the other in 2015.
Recently, however, the Soccer Boosters at Indian River came up with a new way of honoring past stars — the ones who aren’t specifically mentioned on the prideful coats of current IR soccer lettermen and coaches yet still shine brightly from their days in green and gold and as one of the main reasons for the program’s development and continued success.
Last Thursday, March 9, three of those stars — Howard Gerken, Christopher Conover and Josh Mercer — got a chance to shine once again when they were officially honored as the first class of the Indian River High School Soccer Hall of Fame.
“It caught me off-guard. I really didn’t expect it,” said Gerken of finding out the news. “It’s a very nice honor, and I appreciate it.”
With more than four decades of coaching experience at both Christiana High School — where he won his first state championship in the mid-’70s — and Indian River, Gerken continues to help coach both the boys’ and girls’ soccer programs at IR.
He was also inducted into the Delaware Youth Soccer Association (DYSA) Hall of Fame in January and may be best known as “the Godfather of Sussex County soccer” and patriarch of the River Soccer Club, which he got off the ground after moving to the area in 1976.
“There were others that were involved with the program before I showed up, but in my opinion none of this is possible without Howard’s time and effort on the youth side of things and with the high school,” said IR soccer head coach and River Soccer Club Director of Coaching Steve Kilby. “The combination of those two factors, to me, is insurmountable, as far as being the first inductee. We all aspire to great heights, and Howard has set the bar.”
Along with Gerken, Conover’s induction was also announced at the first annual soccer alumni “The Mixer” fundraiser, held at the Frankford fire hall last month. Despite some last-minute itinerary-shuffling by his parents so they could make sure to be in attendance, the 2009 IR grad was equally shocked by the news.
“I didn’t expect it all. My parents told me that they changed up their plans and were going to be there, but I didn’t pick up on it,” Conover said. “I was just very grateful.”
While Gerken and Kilby would joke that their former player’s accolades included “most red cards in a season,” Conover is a headliner among the program’s most successful careers at the collegiate level, selected as a First Team NCSAA All-American during his senior year at Roanoke College.
He was also named a Second Team NCSAA All-American after his junior campaign at Roanoke and was a two-time First Team Old Dominion Athletic Conference selection, in addition to being name Roanoke’s “Male Athlete of the Year” before graduating in 2012.
Mercer wasn’t able to make last month’s alumni mixer but, with an equally as impressive NCAA career at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, rounded out the inaugural class at the induction ceremony held March 9.
“I would definitely say it was surprising I had no idea what was going on,” said Mercer, a 2012 graduate of Indian River and 2015 graduate of NJIT. “It’s pretty humbling and such an honor to be inducted into such a high class of Indian River soccer players.”
While at NJIT, Mercer was a two-time Sun Belt All-Conference selection and two-time Sun Belt Conference Commissioner’s All-Academic selection. He was also named to the NSCAA University Division I Scholar All-East Region Second Team and 2015 Sun Belt All-Tournament Team, and was a Senior CLASS Award Candidate in 2015.
In addition to heralded careers for the Indians, continued success at the collegiate level is one of the contributing factors in the hall’s selection process.
“There’s a set of criteria and guidelines that we put together, and some of the criteria to take into account was players’ collegiate careers, on top of their high school careers,” explained Kilby. “The two most outstanding players that we had based on that criteria, that I was aware of at that time, were Josh and Chris.”
With a successful first-year turnout at “The Mixer,” the Boosters are planning on continuing to make the fundraiser an annual event at which future HOF classes can be inducted and past players can catch up on old times.
“It was kind of neat to see the players — some of them I hadn’t seen in five or six years — there. I really didn’t even recognize some of them right away,” said Gerken. “It was neat to be able to see everyone and tell old war stories.”
“It was really good to see everyone out there supporting. I think it’s a great idea and a great fundraiser,” added Conover. “I know that the chatter after the event was that we all wanted it to continue and to grow. It’s something that I think can become a bigger event each year and continue to be successful.”