GRANITE CITY - Gene Baker, the head soccer coach at Granite City High School and Granite City South from 1973-1999 and who won nine IHSA state championships, died early Saturday morning in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was 79.
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Baker was a standout athlete playing for CBC High School, where he was a member of the 1960 Class L Missouri state championship team. He ended up playing soccer at Saint Louis University, where he was a member of the undefeated 1965 NCAA National Champions. He went into coaching and coached at Riverview Gardens High in north St. Louis County from 1968-1973, moving to Granite City South in 1973. The Warriors finished third in the single-class IHSA state tournament and returned in 1975, only to lose in the state quarterfinals to Hinsdale Central 1-0 after extra time on a goal that was literally blown into the net by a strong wind after a collision between a Central player and the South goalie.
The next year started the incredible run of state championships, with a streak of five straight from 1976-1980 before losing in the sectional semifinals to eventual state champions Collinsville in 1981. The Warriors regained the championship in 1982, then returned in 1987 as Granite City High to claim another title. After sharing third place in 1988, the Warriors won the championship in 1989 and 1990, making his last appearance in the state finals in 1994, losing to Palatine in the final 2-1 after extra time.
Baker also coached the girls' soccer team from its inception in 1987 to 1997, making three appearances in the state finals. He also coached at Blackburn College before retiring in 2002. He won 514 games at Granite City/Granite City South and a total of over 700 wins in his career. Baker coached the men's and women's teams at Blackburn College (now Blackburn University) in Carlinville, becoming the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division-III history with the Beavers.
He also coached 44 All-State players and 13 high school All-Americans in his career. He is survived by his children, Gene, Barrett and Bridget.
John Menendez, one of Baker's players, made this statement about the legendary coach: "I told Coach Baker many years ago, other than family, he’s the biggest influence in my life. As educators go, I consider Helen Kuenstler a distant second, though second nonetheless. I apologize to Helen (now in heaven) in advance for this lengthy script.
"Entering high school in 1979, expectations were sky-high for anyone daring to play for the program. With roughly 50 freshmen trying out, the competition was tough. During the first few practices, I looked around and knew this freshman class would win the state tournament as seniors, and I wanted to be there. No question, we will keep the winning tradition going. 1982 State Champions.
"There are too many stories and memories to share, without writing a complete novel. I will mention two which came to mind today. I was really good at the thigh settle. Probably one of the best ever. When a ball came to me in the air, I would “catch” it on my thigh and drop it to my feet. Every time. I was pretty good at this skill.
"The thigh settle was clearly not a skill Coach Baker appreciated. After telling me numerous times, he finally gave me an ultimatum saying, “If I see the damn thigh settle one more time Menendez, you’re done.” I never did it again, no matter how tempting. He knew this was not the way to play at upper levels. Use your feet when possible.
"My other memory to share pertains to game preparation. We were blessed with detailed scouting reports, even on Chicago area teams. My senior year we played the early season Glenbrook North Tournament. Prior to the game, we were told the goalie does not like to catch the ball. Even on floaters, his tendency was to “block” the ball down in front of him, then grab to distribute. As I think about it, this is like a thigh settle for goalies. For this game, I was at right wing. Seconds prior to the starting whistle, coach called me over. “As soon as you see a shot from the left side, run to the far post, and the ball will be at your feet.”. As I recall, my goal on this exact sequence occurred within the first 15 minutes. I think it was one of Hency‘s floaters.
"Glenbrook North Tournament Champions
Tournament of Champions Champions
Illinois State Champions
Still, Illinois record 30 most wins in a season
Still, Illinois record 23 shutouts in a season."
“Whether coaching proper technique, game strategy, or how to survive and succeed in life, Coach Gene Baker is the best."
Funeral arrangements are pending.