Published in the August 31, 2018 edition.
By DAN PAWLOWSKI
WAKEFIELD — The question isn’t why Ilir Ujkaj so much as it’s why Wakefield?
Those in town know why. The Wakefield High boys’ soccer team has a rich history and plenty of upside waiting to be uncovered. The Warriors went 3-13-5 in 2016 and 5-13-1 last year under interim head coach and Galvin Middle School Assistant Principal Andrew Tetrault. Tetrault, who is well aware of the potential of the Wakefield soccer program after being a part of a state championship team as a player in 1997, agreed to help the team bridge the gap to what would hopefully be the next great coach.
The Warriors believe they found that in Ilir Ujkaj.
But perhaps more importantly, Ujkaj believes he found the right place for him.
The native of Albania doesn’t see a team needing to rebuild so much as he sees a commitment to the sport from the administration to the student athletes, all the way down to the facilities.
“Wakefield has excellent logistics dedicated to high school soccer,” said Ujkaj. “Two full size turf fields? There are few High Schools in Massachusetts that can come close to that.”
Ujkaj comes to Wakefield from Albania, yes, but to understand his exposure to the game and its different styles, you would have to take a quick trip across the Adriatic, which is what Ujkaj did in 1997, moving to Italy where he played the game and obtained a UEFA B Coaching License, eventually leading to coaching youth soccer in Bologna.
In 2007, Ujkaj moved to Massachusetts and worked as a full time soccer coach for Global Premier Soccer, a soccer developmental club that has mentored many of the state’s best players. Ujkaj is currently the head coach of the GPS Central Elite U-18 boys’ team.
He was head coach of the Bishop Guertin varsity team in Nashua New Hampshire for two seasons in 2016 and 2017.
Just one scrimmage against Bedford on Tuesday’s sweltering afternoon and Ujkaj’s preferred style of play is evident. It’s a crafty yet cautious Italian style with a clear emphasis on discipline and possession building from an organized back line up to midfielders like returning senior captains Aidan Cusack, Joshua Ell and Carter Margolis who can possess and create a relentless attack, while allowing forwards to make diagonal and indirect runs.
Ujkaj will be able to place his players in better spots as he continues to learn their tendencies.
“I am getting to know the players slowly,” said Ujkaj. “There is a good core of seven or eight returning players.”
Those players represent an opportunity that was too good for the coach to pass up. Ujkaj is grateful to Wakefield athletic director Brendan Kent for giving him an opportunity to coach a public school, something the coach is really looking forward to.
“Coaching a public high school that represents a town and a community will be a different experience as to coaching a private school (Bishop Guertin),” said Ujkaj who is excited at the prospects of working with the town and Wakefield’s youth like he did in Bologna. “Wakefield has a lot of potential to be a very competitive school in the Middlesex League and I am hoping to contribute toward that goal.”
The Warriors ended last year on a strong note, winning three of their final four games, including a 3-1 win over rival Melrose. With 11 seniors graduating from last year’s team, there will be plenty of opportunity for younger players to prove themselves alongside that core of returners.
For Ujkaj, getting Wakefield back to the top starts with good practice habits.
“My expectations are to work and practice professionally,” said the coach with a dash of Fabio Capello before shifting to a more fun-loving Arrigo Sacchi style. “We want to have discipline but at the same time be excited and why not, have some fun.”
From Albania to Italy to New England, one thing is for sure: Wakefield will have plenty of fun learning the game from Ilir Ujkaj.