For almost 50 years, the Granite City Warriors have been a boys’ soccer state powerhouse.
Granite City has captured 10 state championships, more than any other Illinois high school. The Warriors also have won 715 matches, made 16 trips to the state tournament, captured 16 sectional and 15 regional titles and had numerous outstanding players such as David Fernandez, Keith Gehling and Bobby Galvin.
The Warriors certainly came a long way from their first season in 1967, when they won just two matches.
“It was tough going the first year,” said Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer, who played on that first Granite City squad.
Still, Hagnauer enjoyed the experience of playing on the first Granite City soccer team.
“It was fun,” Hagnauer said. “It’s something that you never wanted to give up. I still follow soccer. I participate in all of their fundraisers and it’s a great tradition for Granite and hopefully, it will come back someday.”
The other players on the first varsity squad were Bob Canada, Tom Cholevik, Larry Harris, Dan Hodge, Larry Knox, Tony Kozial, Rich Lesko, John Martinez, Mike McGovern, Jerry Monahan, Den Reutebuch, Mace Rodgers, Jim Rollins, Rich Schardan, Robert Thureau, Domingo Valencia and Mike Welsor.
“That was a group where a lot of guys hadn’t played soccer before,” Hagnauer said. “Some of us came up through the program with Ruben Mendoza right after he started the soccer program in Granite. We’ve been playing with him. When they brought it (soccer) to the high school, I don’t think it was enough to fill a team with guys just from the soccer program.”
Mendoza, who died in 2010, helped bring soccer to Granite City after representing the United States on three Olympic teams and two World Cup teams. He sold soccer shoes and equipment out of his car trunk and later opened a sporting goods store in Granite City.
“Ruben would pick us up on a Saturday and a Sunday and he would dump all of us in his station wagon and we’d head over to St. Louis to play,” Hagnauer said. “We had very little experience as far as playing the elite-type soccer that the people on the other side of the river had.”
Tom Wyrostek, who coached the football team to the state playoffs in 1991, was the Warriors’ head coach. He coached the soccer program for four seasons and won 30 matches.
“What coach thought that would help us win our games was running,” Hagnauer said. “When we go out, we came to practice and we ran.”
The Warriors finished 2-8-3 in their first season. They played only two Illinois schools that season — Western Military Academy in Alton and Assumption High School in East St. Louis. Granite City lost its first soccer match to Assumption, 1-0.
“Everything we played was from the other side of the river and they were tough,” Hagnauer said.
After losing their first two matches, Granite City beat Western Military Academy 5-1 for its first win. The Warriors also picked up a 2-1 victory over St. Henry.
During that time, high school soccer was played during the winter season.
“Our season started in November and we played until February,” Hagnauer said. “When we played, our football coaches were our soccer coaches also. They would allow you to wear one shirt underneath your soccer shirt. You couldn’t wear long pants of any kind. We went out there and it was cold. Occasionally, they did let us wear a hat. But we couldn’t pile stuff on or underneath our jerseys.”
Hagnauer said after that first year, he never expected Granite City was going to turn into one of the top high school soccer teams in Illinois.
“I don’t think anyone would have predicted that it would become the powerhouse that it was,” Hagnauer said. “I don’t know how they could have. It was a bunch of Granite City guys playing soccer and a lot of it has to do with the dedication and the coaching that a lot of us received.”
In 1968, the Warriors finished 5-5-4, beginning a streak of 20 consecutive seasons which the squad finished .500 or better. Granite City went 11-4 in 1969 and 12-1-4 in 1970.
Then, John Sellmeyer took over the program in 1971 and coached the team to its first unbeaten season. The Warriors went 18-0-1.
The next year, Granite City won the first of its 10 state championships, beating New Trier West 2-1 in the title match. The Warriors scored 90 goals and finished with 16 shutouts in the 1972 season.
The Granite City boys’ soccer program continued to flourish when Gene Baker took over in 1973. The Warriors won nine more state titles, including four in a row from 1977-1980.
Baker coached the Riverview Gardens program for five years before coming to Granite City. He won 514 matches in his 27 seasons as the Warriors coach. Baker retired in 2000.
“Naturally, when they brought in Gene, it was a whole different world for us,” Hagnauer said.
Dave Ames, who became an assistant under Baker in 1983, took over the program in 2000. In his first year, he coached the Warriors to a Southwestern Conference championship.
Barry Grote, who is currently the assistant coach, coached the Warriors from 2002-2007 and won 52 matches. In his first season, the Warriors won regional and sectional titles and qualified for the state tournament for the first time in eight years. Granite City hasn’t played in the state tournament since that 2002 season.
Skip Birdsong, who played on the last Granite City state championship team in 1990, coached the Warriors from 2007-2009. The Warriors won a conference title in Birdsong’s first season.
After Jeff Hayes coached the program for four seasons, Kenny Jackson became the team’s eighth coach in 2014. A 2002 GCHS graduate, Jackson helped the Warriors win a conference crown in his junior season and earned third-team all-league honors as a senior.
The Warriors moved to their new field, Gene Baker Field, in 2004 after playing at the Gauntlet for many years. Granite City played its final match at the Gauntlet in 2003, when it lost to Springfield Southeast in the Class AA regional semifinals.