If St. Louis is the birthplace of soccer in Missouri, count Tom Knight as one of the wise men who led Smith-Cotton to the promised land.
Knight, activities director at Bunceton R-IV School, was inducted into the Missouri State High School Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Fame in December with 150 wins to his name.
Inductees in the MSHSSCA Hall of Fame average about 500 wins, but Knight’s nine consecutive district championships at Smith-Cotton — and its historic 1984 appearance in the Final Four — secured his place in the club.
“It was a thrill,” Knight said. “I was happy they remembered me.”
The 1984 Tigers were the first soccer team outside of the St. Louis area to advance to the Final Four — a big deal then and an achievement that resonates to this day.
“When we made the first final four, I was getting calls from all over the Midwest,” Knight said.
Knight said even Bob Guelker, the 1972 U.S. Olympic Soccer coach and St. Louis native, congratulated the team, and later scheduled a coach’s clinic in Sedalia.
For players like Nathan Wolf, a Smith-Cotton senior in 1984, the season is a cornerstone high school memory.
“It was history,” Wolf said. “For three years in a row, we had made the Elite Eight. We just couldn’t break that barrier. There’s a stigma about Final Four, no matter what sport it is. That was biggest highlight of our season — our high school career — was to break through that ice and be one of the top four teams in Missouri.
“To play in front of all of the soccer fans in St. Louis was just the icing on the cake.”
From then on, in a high school soccer landscape that included about 60 programs, Smith-Cotton would only play the best.
De Smet Jesuit High School, Christian Brothers College High School, Eureka, Lafayette and Parkway invited the Tigers to matches and tournaments, and not just for soccer.
Ross Dey, who coached goalkeepers to move like a hot-corner infielder as an assistant with the soccer team, would later find a young David Freese at Liberty Park facing his S-C baseball team.
“They could play anybody they wanted to,” Knight said. “They had people in line wanting to play them. But, for some reason, they liked coming over here.”
The Sedalia influence has spread since 1984 and 1989 — the last year Knight coached S-C soccer after accepting a position as activities director.
Mike Howard and Eddie Horn, MSHSSCA Hall of Fame inductees last year and Smith-Cotton graduates, went on to coach at Rolla High School and Jefferson City High School, respectively. Howard has coached at Rolla for more than 25 years, while Horn recently coached at State Fair Community College in its first season since 2001.
Wolf said it’s no surprise students of Knight’s went on to excel in coaching.
“They are, so to speak, a chip off the old block,” Wolf said. “That knowledge originated with Tom Knight. He has a good soccer brain, and he was able to apply it to the players, and it warms my heart to see my former soccer teammates do so well in the coaching scene as well.”
Even in 2016, when Sacred Heart tied with Greenwood in the Class 1 third-place match, a Smith-Cotton graduate, Chris Shull, led the Blue Jays to a 2-2 draw with the Gremlins. Chris is the older brother of Brian Shull, who played on the historic 1984 team.
“With them being the first team to ever beat a St. Louis team to advance to the Final Four, that’s something that won’t be repeated and nobody can ever take it away from them,” Knight said. “That’s a connection between all those kids. They’re proud of it, I know.”
Horn, a coaching product from that crop, said his achievements transcended win totals.
“He helped bring the state together,” Horn said. “He was able to get those teams to come out here and play. It opened the door up for a lot of schools to get them on the schedule … It gave guys opportunities to play in college — postseason awards not really available to Sedalia kids. His work went beyond winning districts and advancing in the state playoffs.”
Alex Agueros can be reached at 660-826-1000, ext. 1483 or on Twitter @abagueros2