As derbies go, it’s not one of the oldest or storied in college soccer but few rivals in the sport can say they’ve been able to take a short walk to away games in the fixture like teams from Eastern and Cabrini have for the past five decades.
Kicked off in 1982 when the two men’s teams met for the first time – strangely enough on Eastern’s campus during Cabrini’s homecoming – and extended with the entry of the women’s teams playing each other for the first time in 1999, the Eagle Road Derby or The Battle of Eagle Road as it’s officially known has been a staple in the rivalry between the two suburban Radnor campuses for generations.
This Saturday, Cabrini’s men will play one final game against their cross-the-street rivals at Edith Robb Dixon Field and hope to complete a sweep after the women defeated Eastern at home 1-0 in the second week of the season. A win would also secure an even split of 20 wins a piece in the 40th and final meeting (according to stats on the Eastern website).
The finality of Saturday’s game is one of many casualties of the school’s closing. Over the summer, the axe fell with the announcement that Cabrini would cease operations after the 2023-24 academic year and be purchased by Villanova University.
“The second I heard the news there was no question in my mind about whether I would stay,” said Cabrini head coach Rob Dallas, who had always hoped his tenure would end by retirement. “Now I’m just trying to give the team the best experience I can and then on the back end of this I’m trying to preserve the legacy as best I can.”
A Radnor native, Dallas has been part of the men’s soccer program since he joined out of college at Millersville as an assistant in 2006. He took over as head coach in 2012 and suffered Cabrini’s worst loss in the derby in a 7-1 drubbing on Olson Field. While the game was an ugly one, it was the start of a friendship between Dallas and long-time Eastern head coach Mark Wagner, who invited him out to coffee a few days after the game.
“I think every coach who’s ever come in afterwards has asked me to go grab coffee at some point,” Dallas said. “And I’m not even a big coffee guy, but it’s great.”
The reception between the two schools wasn’t quite as cordial in years prior when they were conference rivals. By the time the soccer derby started, there was already an established school rivalry naturally fueled by the proximity of the neighbor schools. Eastern started men’s soccer in 1959; Cabrini just two years before the rivalry began in 1980.
“I remember some messages being painted on our field the first couple years,” said Tim Beach, who was the Eastern coach when the rivalry began in 1982. “It didn’t take much, you know, for emotions to run high.”
Beach was early in his coaching career at the time and after a four-year stint moved on to become a coach at Friends Central and eventually shifted his focus fully to track and field, later serving as an assistant track coach at the University of Pennsylvania and a number of other programs before landing in his current job coaching track at Auburn University.
Recalling his time at Eastern, Beach remembers it being a formative experience for him as a young coach. He won both games he coached in the derby, picking off a 2-1 win in the inaugural match and a 3-1 win in 1983.
“It was a great opportunity I probably didn’t deserve,” Beach said of his time at Eastern. “I was only 23 at the time so I had to work hard to become a good coach but it was an experience that quite literally changed my life.”
That 1983 Eastern team was a win away from going to the NAIA nationals, Beach recalled, but by the time 1984 rolled around, Cabrini took the upper hand, rattling off wins in 9 of the next 10 meetings. Legendary head coach Duncan Hubley, who coached at Penn and Spring Garden College and is a member of the Southeastern PA Soccer Hall of Fame, joined Cabrini in 1987 and posted an 8-2 record in the Eagle Road Derby during his 11 seasons at the helm. Eastern has made up ground over the past decade, winning 8 of the last 10 meetings.
Wagner, who has helped out with his brother Dan Wagner’s team at F&M since stepping down in 2016, coached in many an Eagle Road Derby match during his 16 seasons at the helm. For him, the atmosphere playing at Edith Robb Dixon Field under the lights was among the best he’s experienced in all of his coaching career, even if many of the fans there were rooting against him and his team.
“It felt like you kind of couldn’t breathe,” Wagner said. “It felt like the fans were on top of you and it’s just an intense environment. You always had to adjust too because their field is a little smaller and you’re playing at night and there’s dew on the field and the ball is skipping a little faster.”
Still, Wagner said as a coach his approach was always different than his players, in part because of his great respect for the Cabrini program.
“I always wanted to win but if I’m being brutally honest I would say my players were always more jazzed up for it,” Wagner said. “It was a bragging rights thing for them but I would look at it more as another game we needed to win in the course of the season to try and make the NCAA Tournament.”
Like any good rivalry though, the derby has had its share of gamesmanship.
“There was one game where they warmed up on their field instead of ours,” Wagner recalled. “So we’re at our field warming up by ourselves, we’re playing music and everything and they’re just not there. Then all of a sudden a few minutes before kickoff you see them walking in. I thought it was pretty clever, trying to psyche us out like that.”
Though plenty close to walk – Olson Field and Edith Robb Dixon Field are 2,100 feet apart – Dallas does remember one road game where they took vans because of the inclement weather.
“We had lightning so we got the vans but then the game was postponed,” Dallas said. “So we walked back over the next day to play.”
There are of course other neighboring schools that play each other in soccer. Drexel and Penn have neighboring campuses but not quite neighboring soccer fields and there a handful of other schools across the country that sit in close proximity to one another.
Where the Eagle Road Derby has been somewhat unique is the similarities between the makeup of the two teams and the competitiveness – at least on the men’s side (Eastern women finished with a 17-6-2 record).
“There’s a couple of programs throughout the country that have fields that are that are close to each other, but the programs are in very different places,” Dallas said. “And I think that’s been what’s been so fun about ours is that both our programs have been kind of at the same tier for a long time and we’re competitive with one another. We probably drove that with each other when we were in conference together but even as we moved away to different conferences, both programs have been pretty successful.”
In the years since the derby began, Eastern has posted double-digits in wins 24 times and Cabrini 23 times. Eastern enters Saturday’s game with a 2-2-0 record to start the season under rookie head coach Luca Mellor while Dallas has started off with a 3-3-0 record.
Though the news of the program shuttering did lead to much of the incoming freshmen class transferring out, Dallas was able to field a full and experienced roster with players hungry to end things on a high note.
“I’m really happy not just that we had enough guys stay but also the group that did decide to stay; we have a quality group,” Dallas said. “My focus has really been trying to give these guys the best student athlete experience possible and then for those who have to move on one way or another whether they’re gonna play soccer or not I want to make sure I help them find a good fit.”
Being part of the final season was so important for grad student Matt Duddy he’s been balancing playing on the team with his studies and a full-time job at Sunoco Logistics Partners.
“It’s a lot but I knew that being here for every single one of the recruits that came in I’ve been here for these guys and I wanted to see it out,” Duddy said.
Duddy sadly has been through the experience of a school he attended closing its doors before. Twice in fact. Both Duddy’s elementary school (Immaculate Conception in Jenkintown) and high school (McDevitt High School in Wyncote) closed after he attended.
“Unfortunately, I’m going to be three for three,” he said.
Duddy said the closure comes up a lot in team talks and is a source of motivation, particularly heading into the final Battle of Eagle Road game.
“Whatever we finish this game with is the legacy to be left and I think that resonates with a lot of people and helps push us,” Duddy said.
The Wyncote native who comes from a big soccer family got to experience the first win for a Cabrini team over Eastern in quite some time last season.
“Last year was just overwhelming winning there because it was our first time and it had been a while,” Duddy said. “There’s no feeling like walking back to campus after beating Eastern.”
Duddy said the intensity of the rivalry is unlike anything he’s experienced playing the game anywhere else.
“It’s really everything you could ask for in a college game,” he said. “It’s loud and it’s packed with our fans and their fans.”
Like a lot of players on both sides of the rivalry, Duddy visited both campuses when he was considering where to go to college. He did an overnight visit to Eastern and the next day visited Cabrini. He’s relished the experience at Cabrini getting to play college soccer while earning a degree in finance and now working toward a master’s degree in global business.
Duddy will have more than just family, friends and students cheering him on Saturday. He has some coworkers coming.
“I have a bunch of coworkers that went to Cabrini in varying decades who will be there,” Duddy said. “They still talk about the Eastern game and how important it is.”
Those memories will have to sustain Cabrini soccer beyond the life of the school, which will leave behind far more than sports rivalries when it closes its doors in May. The beautiful leafy campus will get a second life but the history of one of college soccer’s most unique rivalries will be held close by all who experienced it and after Saturday will be wishing didn’t have to end.