When people ask about the growth of soccer in Wilkes County, there are a handful of names who come to mind.

One of those names was Jim Caudill, who died on April 23.

When I arrived at the Wilkes Journal-Patriot nearly 10 years ago, people had told me about Jim, but it wouldn’t be until a few years later that I met him in person.

It happened to be on a very humid June evening in 2014 as he was doing a function down at the Rivers Edge soccer fields. Just on the interaction between him and the kids, you could tell he was eager to pass his knowledge and passion of the sport down to the next generation.

“There was a group of people who formed Wilkes County soccer and were involved in getting Wings of Wilkes going; my dad wasn’t necessarily a part of that group but I think he was kind of the next step. He brought soccer to maturity in Wilkes County,” said Joey Caudill, Jim’s son. “He was one of the first guys from Wilkes County to go and get his coaching license and ended up being a national ‘B’ coach. Most ‘B’ coaches are college coaches but dad loved the education side of it, he loved teaching people the game and he was able to do that over a 25-30-year career. He was able to grow the game in this county to some really impressive levels that it really hadn’t been to before.”

A few months after my first encounter with Jim, my relationship with him changed, as he took over the Wilkes Central boys soccer program from another name synonymous with Wilkes County soccer — Mike Sloan. The two had been involved in various soccer capacities over the years, first as opponents, and then as colleagues.

Over the next six seasons, Caudill helped the Eagles maintain their status as one of the top soccer programs in the Mountain Valley Athletic Conference.

Sloan, who helped start the program at Wilkes Central in the late 1980s, led the team for 26 years and alongside Uwe Ehrlich, helped start the first county high school girls soccer program in 1993.

Prior to the 1995-96 school year, when West Wilkes started its soccer programs, Wilkes Central was the only county school to field soccer programs.

“I think Jim did a tremendous job, first, with building an outstanding program at West Wilkes. Whenever we played West, you always knew you were going up against a team that was well-coached, disciplined, skillful and would fight from the first minute to the last minute,” said Sloan. “He did a tremendous job of building that program and he was very active in the soccer community as a coach. I can’t tell you how many teams he’s worked with; I think at one point, he was working with Wilkes Central (as an assistant coach) and plus, two Challenge teams going — he’s just been an integral part to the development of soccer in Wilkes County.”

Caudill, who also held head coaching positions at Davie County and Mooresville, really made his mark at the high school level as the coach at West Wilkes, where he started both the boys and girls soccer programs for the Blackhawks.

It was a rocky start for West Wilkes as it went winless (but had two ties) in the inaugural 1995 campaign and just two wins the next season. But by the program’s fourth season, they won a share of the Mountain Valley Conference championship and secured the league’s top 2A spot.

That year’s team had a 16-match winning streak, finished 17-3 and played and hosted its first North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoff match.

Tom Jones, the former athletic director at West Wilkes, said in an Oct. 30, 1998, Wilkes Journal-Patriot article that hiring Caudill to start the program was, “one of the best decisions I’ve made as AD. Jim has done everything right. He developed a plan for the program and has stuck with it.”

Joey Caudill, who was a part of the Blackhawks’ first boys soccer team, felt that his father was a big part of the growth of soccer in Wilkes County, especially at the youth and prep levels.

“Most of the major soccer milestones that Wilkes County has experienced, my dad was a part of,” said Caudill. “He was a part of Wilkes Central’s championship team (in 2005), part of starting the program at West Wilkes, he was the first coach there. He was the first coach from Wilkes County to be involved with the Olympic developmental program. He was one of the first coaches to be involved with the Powerade State Games on the soccer side.

“He coached some of the best players to ever come out of this county,” added Caudill. “He’s been just such a big part of Wilkes County soccer the last 25 years and just taking it to a new level.”

Jeff Rush, who has been the vice president of Wings of Wilkes, echoed Joey Caudill’s sentiments.

Rush’s two daughters, Savanna and Olivia, played for Jim Caudill at various levels. Olivia Rush, Jeff’s youngest daughter, was a member of Caudill’s squad this spring.

“He’s been a big, big asset to help us get to the next level,” Rush said in an interview from May 2015. “I can remember when I lived in Winston and we were with the Twin City team, Wilkes was always, ‘Oh we’ll go up there and beat them, no problem.’ But now when you see Wilkes coming — our younger girls and the other teams that we have — you know they are going to have a strong showing. It’s not a welcome mat anymore.”

Over the days following his passing, there’s been an outpour of support, remembrance and photos by former players, coaches and parents on social media.

But one of the most humorous, and probably most telling, comments came from an official who called a number of matches during Caudill’s coaching tenure.

Mark Mahaffey, who has also called a lot of soccer matches involving Wilkes County soccer teams, said, “Rest In Peace my friend. I bet you already found a beautiful pitch in heaven and maybe even scored. Until we meet again — I’ll bring a red card.”

That comment made me laugh considering how many cards Jim Caudill had been issued from Mahaffey over the years.

Another member of one of Caudill’s first teams, Wesley Golds, is now the head coach of the West Wilkes boys soccer program. Golds, who just completed his fourth season as the Blackhawks’ head man, hasn’t forgotten the lessons Caudill taught him and is working to instill those into his own players.

The Blackhawks went 12-8 last fall after winning just three combined matches the previous two seasons.

“Coach played a big part in my life as a young man growing up,” Golds said in a Twitter post. “He was a coach, mentor, friend, and for the last several years that opponent with one of the top tier programs in the conference that we were trying to become like at West Wilkes. He will be missed.”

While soccer was his passion, he was also into other sports, mainly his love for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Bears.

I remember covering a Wilkes Central football game at North Iredell last fall and the game was late starting due to lightning.

But during that break, we just sat there and talked baseball. He talked about growing up a Phillies fan in the 1970s and 1980s; while I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, baseball has always been a sport of nostalgia, so it was cool getting his take on his experiences as a baseball fan.

As accomplished as Caudill was as a coach, it was never about his accolades. He was always campaigning to make sure that his players got recognition.

He was always the first coach to send me nominations for when we did the newspaper’s all-county teams. He would always nominate a bunch of players because he wanted them to get recognized so much and was always grateful for what we did.

“Jim was a great person, always smiling and willing to help out. He had such a huge impact on Wilkes County soccer with his involvement in Wings of Wilkes soccer for so many years,” said Wilkes County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Anderson, who also served as an assistant coach with Caudill for many years. “He coached multiple teams and also would offer workouts for the youth. Jim was a great mentor to a lot of young soccer players. He will be greatly missed.”

This past fall was a trying season for the Eagles. Caudill said last August, Central almost didn’t have a boys team this past fall at the beginning of fall practice due to low numbers. The Eagles finished 10-12 and made the NCHSAA 2A playoffs for the seventh season in a row.

Even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer this past winter, I wondered if he would be back on the sidelines for what was expected to be a very successful girls soccer season after completing an undefeated 2019 regular season.

The Eagles had won the last three MVAC championships under Caudill and were 4-0 through March 12 — the day that the NCHSAA announced the suspension of all spring sports events.

Two days earlier, I sat on the bench at Rivers Edge Park with him after Central’s 4-0 win over North Iredell to get comments on both the match and for my season preview for the Eagles.

With a surgical mask on, I could still hear clearly everything that Caudill said in that interview and he wondered how they could top last season’s success after going 21-1 and losing their first match, by 1-0 score no less, in the third round of the NCHSAA 2A playoffs.

Little did I know that conversation would be the last one that I would ever have with him as he died due to heart failure on April 23.

“The first thing I said in tryouts is ‘what are we going to do to top that?’ That’s a career for some and the thing of it is, if you’re a freshman, if you’re a sophomore, you build on that, you get better,” said Caudill after the match with North Iredell on March 10. “The high-level club players (Makenna Freeman, Sarah Lowe and Zoe Susi), they’re getting double doses of high-level soccer and if they bring that, and the younger girls see that, then it’s golden for us.”

Once restrictions from this pandemic are lifted and the green light is given to have social gatherings, I fully expect the soccer fields at Rivers Edge, as well as all over Wilkes County, to be filled with soccer players and games.

And somewhere Jim Caudill will be looking down on them with a big smile on his face, knowing that the game will continue on.

(Former Assistant Sports Editor Brandon Moree and several former Journal-Patriot sports staff members contributed to this report.)

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