The Webster Groves soccer program enters it’s 50th season next Monday. We are fortunate to have Bennett Durando, a 2017 graduate and two-year Sports Editor of the Echo student newspaper, to help us appreciate the milestone. I invite anyone who would like to contribute photo(s) from the past to be added to this story to contact Ole for details.
While students at Webster Groves High School sat in warm classrooms, safe from a bitter cold December afternoon in 1967, one teacher stood alone, shovel in hand, on the snow-dusted soccer field across Selma Avenue.
Tom Holmes could often be found shoveling snow off that field during school hours in the winter. A young, determined soccer coach, Holmes was doing everything he could to kickstart a high school team at Webster, even using his strategically timed teacher planning period to venture outside and keep the field in shape.
50 years later, Holmes’ creation endures as one of the most formidable public high school soccer programs in the state of Missouri. Webster Groves is now home to a beloved boys soccer team, a popular youth soccer club, and two State championship trophies.
“I think the tradition of success we’ve established, that’s important to inspire future successes,” current head coach Tim Cashel said.
Together, Holmes and Cashel span the team’s entire 50-year history as its only two head coaches. Holmes led Webster for 35 years after founding the program, and Cashel is entering his 16th season at the helm.
“For a soccer program to be around for 50 years and only have two coaches says a lot about them and also the program,” said Tim Velten, a 2002 Webster graduate who played under Holmes and now is an assistant coach for Cashel.
Though much of the team’s history isn’t formally archived, Holmes’ career record is 342-291-64 (per MHSSCA) . Cashel too has a winning record well into his career, at 212-139-21.
“Coach Holmes did an unbelievable job starting the program 50 years ago and beginning a Webster Groves soccer culture,” Velten said. “Then when Coach Cashel was hired, he has just continued to build the program and maintain that standard of excellence while also taking the game into the 21st century.”
Holmes found in the late 1960s that it wasn’t easy creating that culture. Building the program from the ground up, he had to deal with all kinds of obstacles.
“Back then, we played in the winter, so it was a bit brisk out there,” Holmes said with a laugh. “The first game allowed by the state was always December 1. I had to go shovel the field off before games because they were gonna have us play in the snow anyways … but the guys knew the routine, that it was gonna be cold.”
It didn’t help that for years the team had to go to nearby Blackburn Park for practices.
The Statesmen went 4-12 in their first season. Holmes’ goal was to start an uphill climb from there, and slowly but surely, he did. The next year, Webster won eight games; the year after that, 16.
“If you look at the long-term trend of the program, it’s been upward,” Cashel said. “Steady growth. And Tom Holmes was excellent at that.”
Holmes also knew that finding enough experienced kids to play could present its own problem eventually. Though plenty of lifelong Webster School District students were eager to play, at the time they rarely came into high school with soccer experience. For that, Holmes had to look to local private parishes.
“Of the kids who came out, a few had just played at the YMCA, but over 50 percent were from St. Michael’s in Shrewsbury,” Holmes said. “That’s how it had to be to get a winning record every year or two.”
To fix that, a youth club team was briefly established for middle school students in Webster. The high school team had some of its best seasons under Holmes during the several years he led the younger group, something Cashel would have in mind years later as he started the Webster Groves Soccer Club.
Still, in an era where private schools dominated the sport even more than today, Webster struggled to find post-season success.
“For many, many years, we were always in the same district as CBC or SLUH or Chaminade. One of the biggest wins we had was in a State tournament against St. Louis U High, at SLUH,” Holmes said. “We went all the way to a penalty kick shootout and won … and then we turn around the next day and play CBC.”
Playoff clashes with private school blue bloods were inevitable, so Holmes embraced it. The Statesmen established a tradition of scheduling tough teams that continues today, earning them a reputation as one of the toughest public school teams around.
“It makes you feel good inside when someone says something about it, that we’re an excellent opponent,” Holmes said. “I’d schedule the more private soccer powers in order to get our feet wet and get them ready for the eventuality of having one of them compete in our part of the state bracket.”
As the turn of the century approached, so did the time for Holmes to pass on the torch to a new leader. The man for the job, it turned out, was someone very familiar with Holmes.
Tim Cashel, a goalkeeper out of SLU, had played for Holmes on a Missouri Olympic Development Program team before taking a job at Webster as a teacher and assistant coach. When he took over the head coaching role in the early 2000s, he had one goal in mind.
“We’re ambitious as coaches and ambitious as a program, and I think that inspires ambition in the kids,” Cashel said. “There was a lot of growth that had to take place if we were going to win a state championship, which is what I established as our goal.”
To do that, Cashel would first begin work on a new project; in 2005, the Webster Groves Soccer Club was born. The youth development program running from first to seventh grade would change the high school team forever.
“You can’t just take an athlete and make him a good soccer player when he’s a ninth grader, because it’s such a unique skill,” Cashel said. “If you don’t develop it from a young age, you’re always gonna be behind the competition.”
Even 12 years and two State titles later, that youth club remains one of the greatest legacies of the Cashel tenure. For him, it’s his proudest creation.
“It’s not just unique to Webster at this point; I think that we kind of sparked a bit of a trend in trying to localize youth soccer,” Cashel said. “Our kids appreciate the connection that we have to the community.”
“That’s not a coincidence that one of the most successful eras in the history of the program coincides with the start of his soccer club,” Velten said.
Several Statesmen in the 2000s went on to play Division I college soccer. The most impressive of these was Tomas Gomez (2011). After wowing Webster faithful in high school, the star goalkeeper excelled at Georgetown University and was drafted into the MLS. He still plays in the USL today.
Congrats Tomas on the shutout tonight vs. STLFC! Great GK, guy, and family! Webster Groves is very proud! pic.twitter.com/S611RcYodS
— Tim Cashel (@WebsterHSSoccer) July 6, 2017
In one particular memorable 2009 game, Gomez treated a crowd at Selma Field to a dramatic upset win over SLUH, making three saves on three penalty kick attempts.
“That was a really big moment, because it showed that we can beat the best, and we weren’t going to do it every time certainly at that point, but it showed that it was possible,” Cashel said. “The kids looked around and said, hey we can do this, we just have to do it consistently. It was a real kind of watershed moment in the development of the program.”
In a few years time, the Statesmen were doing it consistently. In front of their fans on Selma Field in 2014, they won their first District title in 27 years. They marched to their first Final Four, then in a memorable State semifinal, they lost a 2-0 second half lead before future All-American Sheridan Smith saved them with two late goals.
And then it happened. Senior Willie Zempel scored the goal, keeper Sam Craig and the defense shut down Glendale, and Webster Groves brought home a soccer State championship trophy for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
“The establishment of Webster Groves Soccer Club, in part it was personal, because I wasn’t thrilled about the options that were there for my son to develop his love of soccer,” Cashel said.
Cashel’s son Sam and several of his friends were part of the first group of kids to go through the youth program. In 2015, they were part of a class of 13 seniors leading the Statesmen into a second straight State final.
“The kids that grow up preoccupied with looking at the scoreboard as a measure of their success and failure, a lot of times the game passes them by. Our kids have always learned to play the game the right way, and the scoreboard will take care of itself,” Cashel said. “Even all the way to kind of their ultimate game, the State final, it was still important to them. They knew that it was a special game, but at the same time, it was the same game they’d played hundreds of other times.”
It certainly was the wildest game they’d been a part of. Tied 2-2 with a minute left, senior Antoine Givens turned a thriller into an instant classic with a championship-winning header with 39 seconds to go. It was the perfect ending for the winningest class in team history.
“How can that not be the greatest moment in the history of Webster soccer? 90 percent of the teams in the last minute of the game would’ve got the ball at half field, and they would’ve dumped it into the box and hoped that something good happens,” Cashel said. “We passed the ball.”
Webster became the first public school ever to repeat as Missouri State champs in soccer. It was a proud moment for Holmes and the countless players who had had to play SLUH or CBC in Districts for years.
“I can remember going out to DeSmet in one of my first years as coach and getting 10-nilled,” Cashel said. To him, that game was one of the most important in team history. “Those kids did something very important in the development of our program. These were not State championships for just the kids that were on these teams; they were State championships for the program, because those kids that went out there and got 10-nilled? That was part of the process.”
50 years after Tom Holmes stood alone on a field in the snow, that process he began with a shovel in hand was complete.
Bennett Durando is an award-winning high school sportswriter and recent graduate of Webster Groves High School. He was the sports columnist for the Webster ECHO newspaper for four years and sports editor for two. He will be a journalism student at Mizzou in the fall and plans to pursue a career in sportswriting.
— Webster Groves Echo (@WGECHO) November 16, 2015
— WGHS Athletics (@statesmensports) September 27, 2016
— soccerSTL (@SoccerSTL) October 18, 2015