Public schools making inroads against private-school powers

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By Adam Zuvanich (

The Missouri State High School Activities Association has crowned 93 state champions in boys soccer since 1968, and all but 13 were private-school teams.

Public schools won titles in three of the four classifications last fall, marking the first time more than one finished first in the same year. Not since Oakville in 2000 had any public-school team won a championship.

Has the competitive gap closed between Missouri's public and private-school programs, which for most of the last 50 years have produced superior players and teams?

“The days when St. Louis U. High walks into every public-school game and has a cakewalk, it's really not that way anymore,” said Webster Groves coach Tim Cashel, whose Statesmen won Class 3 last year for their first state championship. “They may win more than they lose, but they have to perform to win.”

Head coaches for several other St. Louis-area teams, which kick off their 2015 seasons this weekend, echoed that sentiment. Not all of them lead public-school programs, which unlike the private schools are bound by attendance zones and cannot offer non-athletic scholarships to students.


Longtime Chaminade coach Mike Gauvain, whose Red Devils lost on penalty kicks in last year's Class 4 title game against Kansas City-area public school Lee's Summit, said the playing field began leveling nearly a decade ago. He said it's no longer a surprise when his team and its four tradition-rich counterparts in the Metro Catholic Conference — which have combined for 26 state championships — lose to some of the larger, suburban public schools.

The same goes for smaller private-school powerhouses such as John Burroughs, St. Dominic and St. Mary's, which each had their 2014 seasons ended by public schools. Perryville beat John Burroughs and St. Pius X en route to winning Class 2.

“It has evened out over the years,” St. Mary's coach Jeff Robben said. “There are more quality kids in the public-school ranks now than even 10 years ago.”

Vianney coach Dave Gauvain said the continued popularity and growth of soccer in the St. Louis area has produced more good players competing for a greater number of schools. He also said there are more quality coaches developing their players at increasingly young ages.

Other factors have contributed to the increased parity between public and private-school teams, including economics. Mike Guavain said the annual tuition at Chaminade, for example, has increased by about $500 per year during his 28-year tenure and is now more than $16,000.

At Ladue, an affluent public school, coach Dave Aronberg said enrollment “skyrocketed” when the last recession started in 2008.

“I think enrollment is down in a lot of private schools,” Aronberg said. “The economy has been a factor for sure.”

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which in 2011 required its players to abstain from competing for their high schools, also has impacted the makeup of area squads. St. Louis Scott Gallagher has six club teams — two apiece at the under-13/14, under-15/16 and under-17/18 levels — that are part of the development academy.

Longtime CBC coach Terry Michler said private and public schools have been affected by the academy program, but the private-school rosters have taken more of a hit. Michler said the Cadets lost eight players to the development academy in 2011, for example, while Cashel said Webster Groves has lost only one player to the academy program since 2011.

The Statesmen, who have had a few other players offered spots with the academy, got that player back for this season.

“You take eight off the field out of 11, that changes things,” Michler said. “I would venture to say that private schools probably have a higher percentage of (academy) players.”

If the private schools are losing more of the area's elite players, that means they're drawing more to begin with. Along those lines, Northwest-Cedar Hill coach David Willis said the historically successful private schools still have a competitive advantage over most public-school programs.

Lee's Summit coach Dave Wiebenga said there is a greater concentration of private schools in the St. Louis area than in Kansas City, but there are parallels on both sides of the state. He said his program strives to compete with Rockhurst, a private-school power in Kansas City that has won all six of its state championships since 1998.

“Why wouldn't kids want to go there and play and be seen at that level? I can't blame them,” Wiebenga said. “But it does scrape players away from our district or the Blue Springs district or Fort Zumwalt district. It is what it is.”

Althoff coach Joe Burchett and Edwardsville coach Mark Heidersheid said the dynamic is different on the Illinois side of the greater St. Louis area, where there are not large, historically successful private schools.

Not all coaches from large public schools in Missouri think they've gained much ground on their private-school counterparts. Francis Howell Central coach Derek Phillips, whose team advanced to its first state semifinal last season, said the playoff brackets set up by MSHSAA played an “important role” in the results.

MCC rivals Chaminade and St. Louis U. High, which finished first and second, respectively, in the final large-schools rankings last year, faced each other in a district final that went to overtime. Howell Central didn't face a private school in the playoffs until its third-place game against Rockhurst, which it won 2-0.

Those schools competed in Class 4, the state's classification for the largest schools, and MSHSAA expanded the soccer playoffs from three to four classes last year. Several area coaches said the extra classification provided a greater opportunity for advancement for public schools, of which there are more.

MSHSAA also uses an enrollment multiplier when grouping private schools into classifications, whereas the public schools use their actual figures. All private schools have their enrollment figures increased by 35 percent for classification purposes, with all-boys and all-girls schools having their enrollment figures doubled before factoring in the 35-percent increase.

“I think the state's done a good job of matching (private schools) in the same district or matching them in sectionals,” said Fort Zumwalt South coach Jim Layne, whose team competes in Class 3 and was a first-time state semifinalist last year. “We get more of an even split.”

Is that a good thing for high school soccer in Missouri? St. Dominic coach Greg Koeller, whose private-school team won consecutive Class 2 titles in 2012 and 2013, said having four classes waters down the overall level of competition.

Wiebenga said some of his coaching peers favor separate divisions for public and private schools and have lobbied for such a change. He said he sympathizes with that stance, but also said his program benefits from the challenge of facing tradition-rich private schools that have the ability to attract better players.

Public-school coaches Aronberg and Layne said they enjoy competing against the private-school programs and are better for the experience, so they would not be in favor of split divisions. Their programs and other public-school teams have made inroads as it is, and last year's state-championship results are evidence of that.

Whether that trend continues remains to be seen. Last year was the first for the four-class format.

“It seems to have helped the public schools out,” Summit coach Chris Kappler said. “I think we have to let it play out a few more years to see exactly if that's leveled the playing field.”