Granite City remembers 9
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GRANITE CITY, Ill. — In Granite City, soccer is a way of life and Gene Baker was the town's larger-than-life soccer figure. The beloved coach died on Aug. 26 at the age of 79.
Kids in town would stage pickup games from dusk to dawn at a local park, hoping the legendary coach would happen to pass by and notice their talent.
“Kids that were 10, 11, 12 years old, they wanted to play soccer for Gene Baker and win a state championship in high school," former Granite City High School player Keith Gehling said.
From 1973 to 1999, Baker won nine state titles with the Warriors. That's the most of any coach in any sport in Illinois high school history. He led Granite City to a run of five straight championships from 1976 to 1980.
And the 1965 NCAA national champion with St. Louis University was a mastermind on the pitch.
“The one thing that really stood out for me was his creativity. The free kicks, the start-ups he did was way before his time," Gehling said.
“Coach was at a faculty meeting, so he was late to practice and we were training off behind the tennis courts. And we were practicing volleys. Balls were shooting all over the place. Coach was always the best dressed, and he walks out in his suit and dress shoes and stops practice to say, ‘Okay guys I’ll show you how it’s done.'” And I’m thinking, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ He takes off his shoes, folds his socks up so he’s bare-footed… grabs a ball and explains how he’s going to do it, tosses it up and smacks it. It goes over the wall, dips down underneath the crossbar, upper 90 and from that moment I thought, ‘I’ve got to listen to every single word this man says,'" former Granite City High School player John Van Buskirk said.
But Baker is remembered for much more than his state titles and 700 career wins on the soccer field.
“He was a really good friend. A mentor. I learned a lot about the game and people in general from him," Dave Ames, and assistant coach under Baker, said. “If you could see all the players who came to visit him when he was sick and all the continued relationships he had with players from a lot of different teams, I would say his impact was huge.”
“I was in Mendoza sporting goods store buying some soccer shoes two weeks before the season started. And I didn’t know Gene Baker. And I’m in there getting the shoes and Ruben Mendoza brought him over and introduced him. I went over to pay for my shoes and Ruben said, ‘Gene got those for you. Coach Baker got those for you.’ So that was my first encounter with Gene Baker," Gehling said. “He built a soccer family, really. There’s an alumni family that’s stuck together through the years. And it’s a good family to be in. Gene built that."
“He had a really incredible way of making every one of his players feel special. Of feeling loved and needed. Nobody was left out," Van Buskirk said.
And Baker’s legacy will always live on in the countless lives he touched in Granite City. And the number is massive.
“Hundreds (of kids). I mean literally. I think he had an impact on players and people who weren’t even part of the program," Ames said.
“He built a legacy here with Granite City soccer. He put Granite City on the map as far as soccer went," Gehling said. “A lot of his players have now gone on to coaching and I’m sure their kids will do the same. His legacy will last.”
“Coach Baker was really the only reason I went to Indiana University and was really the reason I went and played over in Germany and played for so long. And now I’m still coaching, and that’s what impact he had on all of us. Everybody has a piece of Coach Baker in them," Van Buskirk said.