ACKERMAN: The Kolping Kicks
ST. LOUIS (KMOX) — In one day, Tony Schmitt received two gifts that would change his life. At first, though, he was only certain he wanted one of them.
A decade ago, Tony’s wife, Jen, learned she was pregnant. But the thrill of having a baby also meant Jen had to give something up, something very important to her. And she wanted Tony to have it.
It was a U-9 girls soccer team.
Good luck, Coach Schmitt.
“Jen asked me if I could step in and fill the void,” Schmitt says today. “Reluctantly, at first, I did.
“And you know,” he ponders, “I guess they never made it back into her hands.”
Over the next ten years, Tony Schmitt’s Kolping Kicks developed into one of the best U-18 girls soccer teams in the nation. The Kicks won five Missouri State Cups. Last season, they were runners-up at the 2011 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in Phoenix.
They practiced together, traveled together, ate together. Laughed, cried and learned about each other.
Earlier this week, the Kicks advanced to the Midwest Regional Final in Saginaw, Mich. – only to lose in the championship game.
And just like that – the magical run of the Kolping Kicks was over.
“It really was a great run,” Schmitt said over the phone, moments after the final. “A decade of success with these kids. One game can’t tarnish that. I’m extremely proud of them.”
The Kicks lost 3-0 to Cincinnati Soccer Alliance Elite, which will now advance to Nationals.
“You’re up here against the best of the best in the Midwest,” Schmitt said. “It’s a real special time to be with them. A real special time to be together.”
Kolping is an historic organization, a Catholic society that’s served soccer youth in St. Louis purely for the love of the game. Based in South County, Kolping has been able to keep costs extremely low while trying to build, in the community, some high-level soccer training for kids at a very reasonable cost.
Schmitt was given the task of teaching Jen’s girls – all under the age of nine – how to play the game.
“You watch them develop and they start to become friends with the ball,” Schmitt said. “And then they start to learn the intellectual side of the game. It’s fantastic. It’s just exciting to watch players develop and fall in love with the game.”
In doing so, the Kicks weren’t just learning fundamentals of the sport. They were being taught life lessons.
“That is our number one objective, to learn about life through the game,” Schmitt said. “We draw parallels to it all the time.
“We hope the lessons that they’ve learned can help them solve problems as leaders in their family, in their communities, at their schools. We’ve been together through deaths, illness, everything. And we’ve learned to use the game to help us through the things that life brings us.”
And you know what? All along, the real student might have been Schmitt himself.
“I don’t know that I’ve taught them a whole lot compared to what they’ve taught me,” Schmitt said. “We’ve been together through a lot. They’ve taught me a lot how to deal with difficult situations, how to communicate more effectively, how to motivate. They’ve taught me to grow relationships better.
“And I guess become a little better (of a) person. And that…they’ve definitely succeeded with.”
Heading to the Midwest Regional, the Kicks knew they were going to be without defender (and captain) Maddie Friedmann, who was nursing a hamstring injury. Her leadership and on-field experience was undoubtedly a big loss.
“I never say we have a best player on this group,” Schmitt said. “They only succeed as a collective. We missed (Friedmann) dearly. However, through the other adversity we had gone through with injuries, the kids really stepped up and came together, too.”
They went all the way to the final, only to fall short.
“Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce,” Schmitt said. “The crossbar gets the way multiple times. Their keeper comes up big and you tip your cap.”
The girls, obviously disappointed, looked into their coach’s eyes.
“We let them know that they played fantastic,” Schmitt said. “It’s much more than the score. It’s about the memories. And it’s about playing the game the right way, a game we believe is special.
“I just told them I’m extremely proud of them and thanked them for the last ten years. It’s been an amazing memory, but I’m never going to forget. And I’ll be grateful forever.”
The members of the Kolping Kicks will be heard from again – albeit on their respective college campuses – as they compete at the next level.
“Each of them is going to be great,” Schmitt said. “They each chose a great institution for all the right reasons: academics and life — and then the soccer programs. I’m very proud of them.
“And they’re all really going to excel and make a great impact, not only on the soccer program, but on the whole campus community.”
After a couple of days of soul searching, some of the Kicks were back together Saturday night to play for the South team at the MAC Senior All-Star Soccer Games in Fenton. The South beat the North, 8-1. The Kicks’ Nicole Breece was named MVP for the South, scoring two goals.
There were a lot of smiles going around — after losing a few days earlier in Saginaw with Schmitt.
“They’ll realize what a special day they had,” Schmitt said. “The result really wasn’t what they wanted, but they’ll realize how special it was.”
In the next month, some of the Kolping Kicks U-18 girls team will be heading off to college. They’ll settle into their universities and grow as people.
But like any competitive athlete, the fire will be burning. And if they get the urge to take another crack at a national title, they know who to call.
“If they want to get back together as a U-19 group, I’m chomping at the bit (and) ready to go again with them,” Schmitt says, smiling.
Call it a gift.
Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX. He can be heard weekday mornings at :15 and :45 past the hour on “Total Information A.M.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120.