By John Gillis
2012 Christian Brothers College team
When it comes to outstanding high school boys soccer coaches and programs, there is probably no place in the nation stronger than the St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area.
Perhaps it’s something in the water (in this instance, that could be the convergence of the Mississippi River and the Missouri River), but the Gateway City seems to have produced an inordinate number of great coaches and teams over the years, giving it the well-deserved right to tout itself as the “nation’s hotbed of high school boys soccer.”
A cursory review of the NFHS’ online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book supports that assertion as it reveals that the nation’s all-time winningest coach, three of the top four, and five of the top nine all hail from the St. Louis area.
Leading the pack is Terry Michler, the nation’s winningest coach with 845 career victories since 1972 at St. Louis Christian Brothers College (CBC) High School.
In the third position on that list is Greg Vitello, who has won 733 games at St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit High School since 1969. One spot behind him is Vince Drake, who has amassed 717 victories at Florissant St. Thomas High School and St. Louis Trinity Catholic High School since 1968.
Filling in the Nos. 8 and 9 placements are Ebbie Dunn, who led St. Louis University High School to 592 victories from 1955 to 1992, and Bob Horgan, who guided St. Louis CBC High School and Affton High School to 571 wins from 1955 to 1982.
Along with Horgan, Dunn started his coaching career in 1955 and as such could be considered one of the trailblazers of this elite fraternity of St. Louis soccer coaches. At the time he retired, he held the national record for career victories. Dunn led teams to the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) state soccer tournament 20 times, reaching the quarterfinals 14 times, the semifinals seven times and the finals four times. His 1973 and 1990 teams won MSHSAA state soccer championships.
Dunn was recognized numerous times for his coaching accomplishments at various levels. On seven separate occasions, he was chosen city coach of the year in St. Louis. In 1973, he was selected high school coach of the year by the Missouri State Coaches Association, and he was chosen high school coach of the year by both the National High School Athletic Coaches Association and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. In 1996, he was conferred the greatest honor anyone involved with high school sports can achieve when he was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame.
Along the way, Dunn coached eight high school all-Americans, 14 players who became collegiate all-Americans, 10 players who played professional soccer and three who played for the U.S. Olympic soccer team. In addition to soccer, Dunn also coached football and baseball for 17 years. Dunn, who passed away in 2002, was the son of former professional soccer player Jimmy Dunn.
In the present day, Michler has assumed the mantle of being the nation’s winningest high school boys soccer coach. Over the years, the career victories baton got passed down from Horgan to Dunn to Michler. Interestingly, Michler has enjoyed a lifelong connection with Horgan as he played soccer for him at CBC.
As part of the elite troika of the nation’s winningest high school boys soccer coaches and the current leader, Michler gives a great deal of credit to his predecessors.
“I got to know Mr. Horgan through playing for him at CBC. He got the best out of his players,” Michler said. “I got to know Ebbie in a different way. He was a rival coach, but a fine gentleman and well-respected. He never put a result above sportsmanship.
“Both of those guys were well-established in the soccer community, but they are also good people. It’s an honor for me to be in the same group that set the tone, and it’s an honor to carry on for them.”
With a career record of 845-214-100 from 1972 to 2011, Michler has led the Cadets to seven MSHSAA state championships and to six runner-up finishes. In 2010, he was chosen coach of the year in boys soccer by the NFHS Coaches Association.
Michler, who became interested in soccer through his uncle Bob Fitzgerald (who was a top player in St. Louis and later became a successful coach), started playing the game at the tender age of five. A three-year varsity starter at CBC, Michler later was a four-year starter at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, and subsequently played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the Kansas City Spurs, who won the league title.
A self-described “good soccer player,” Michler feels that his playing experiences at all three levels (high school, college and professional) contributed directly to his coaching skills.
“I played left halfback in high school. Probably the one thing I lacked was speed, but I was a good defensive player,” Michler explained. “I would often stay after practice on my own to work on my skills.
“After playing for Rockhurst, I spent a year with the Kansas City Spurs. That was an unbelievable experience. I was one of only two Americans on the team. We were NASL champions in 1969-70. That had to be the one thing that shaped me as a coach.”
With a long CBC boys soccer winning tradition to live up to, the 2012 edition of the Cadets appears to more than be up to the task.
“We’re doing extremely well,” Michler said. “Right now, we’re 16-5-1 and have been ranked second in St. Louis all year. As often is the case, the games we lost we could have won.
“Entering the season, we lost seven kids to the academy, which is a big loss. We started the year off with the idea of ‘What’s this going to be about this year?’ The challenge was to get everybody up to the level of the competition. With the playoffs two weeks away, I’m very satisfied with where we’re at right now.”
Vitello led St. Louis De Smet Jesuit to four state championships during an efficient seven-year stretch in the 1990s (1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997). After a 14-year respite, he led De Smet to the 2011 MSHSAA Class 3 state championship with a 2-0 victory over Oakville High School. It was the Spartans’ 13th state tournament appearance.
During his coaching career, Vitello has helped develop many outstanding soccer players. Among them were 1998 Parade Magazine Soccer Player of the Year Bill McKeon; his brother Matt McKeon, the 1991 Gatorade Circle of Champions Soccer Player of the Year and the 1995 National Collegiate Player of the Year; Chris Klein, the 1993 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Player of the Year; Pat Noonan, the 1997 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Player of the Year; and Will Bruin, a 2008 Parade Magazine All-American, a three-time Missouri State High School Soccer Coaches Association Player of the Year, the 2007 Gatorade Missouri Player of the Year and the 2007 Post-Dispatch Player of the Year. Noonan and Klein have gone on to playing careers in Major League Soccer.
In addition to coaching De Smet soccer, Vitello has served as the head coach in swimming, track and baseball, and as an assistant in football. He led his 2000 Spartans baseball squad to the MSHSAA state championship.
Although it’s not an official statistic kept in the National High School Sports Record Book, Drake is believed to be the first high school soccer coach in America to reach 1,000 wins (boys and girls soccer combined).
On May 6, 2011, Drake led the Trinity Catholic High School girls team to a 3-1 victory over John Burroughs High School in the Ray Beckman Tournament. That win gave him a girls soccer career coaching record of 304-173-26. In combination with his boys career coaching record of 696-291-133, he had won 1,000 games.
Along the way, his boys squads at Aquinas, Aquinas-Mercy and Trinity Catholic won 11 state titles. Drake also coached his Trinity Catholic girls team to the 1987 MSHSAA state championship.
Drake, who turned 66 in August, also serves as athletic director at Trinity Catholic. When Aquinas-Mercy and Rosary merged several years ago to form Trinity Catholic, Drake’s programs continued to prosper. In the past five years, three of his boys teams and two of his girls team have finished in second place.
Horgan, who retired as the winningest coach in high school boys soccer history, never coached a losing team in a career that spanned five decades at seven high schools.
The nation's ninth-ranking leader in wins, Horgan’s 571-93-46 career win-loss record at CBC and Affton High School works out to a winning percentage of 83.7. At CBC from 1955 to 1971, he accumulated 412 wins, 32 losses and 34 ties, which is an 89.4 winning percentage. While at Affton in 1976, Horgan was named the national soccer coach of the year.
Two currently active St. Louis boys soccer coaches are Dave Robben and David Thurmer. Robben, who has accumulated a 469-243-75 record at Oakville High School since 1983, ranks 20th on the all-time victory list. With a career record of 442-291-55 at St. Charles Duchesne High School since 1981, Thurmer is just one spot behind Robben on that same list.
Among retired coaches, Vince Nowak won 408 games at Francis Howell North High School from 1986 to 2009, while Tom Holmes accumulated 378 career victories from 1967 to 2001 at Webster Groves High School. Both of their names appear in the National High School Sports Record Book.
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org