Entering his 39th season as the head soccer coach at St. Hubert, Mick McGroarty insists that not all that much has changed.
Well, except for the obvious ones that time demands.
“I’m already into my second generation of kids, and I’ve had kids — and still do — whose mothers I coached,” the ageless coach said during a Monday afternoon practice as the Bambies prepared for the upcoming season. “I had a reunion recently at Fluke’s on State Road, and 35 girls I coached showed up. Most of them were in their late 40s and early 50s, and now some of them are getting their AARP cards. Some are doctors, lawyers, nurses … but they all started here, and that’s cool. I guess some things have changed, but the game is still the same.”
McGroarty is known as the founding father of girls soccer in the Catholic League. He arrived at St. Hubert in the mid-’70s and recognized an immediate demand for the sport. The Bambies started as a club team, and gained official varsity status in 1981, one of seven founding teams of the league that once swelled to 14 teams before narrowing down to its current state of 12. McGroarty has won over 400 games during his tenure to go with nine league titles, most recently in 2002. And although it’s been over a decade since the Bambies hoisted a Catholic League championship plaque, the program has remained a perennial playoff contender.
McGroarty, now 71, is showing no signs of slowing down. While others his age may have opted for the relaxation of retirement by now, he feels immense pride in the institution he’s remained at his entire career. (McGroarty also used to be the head softball coach at Holy Family, giving that up five years ago while deciding to remain on the St. Hubert sideline.)
He’s used to the question of how much longer he’ll keep at it, and his answer remains the same: it’s undeterminable.
“When I had open-heart surgery in 2004, the first thing I asked the surgeon when I woke up was how much longer I’d be able to coach,” McGroarty said. “He asked me how long I’d like to coach, and I told him until I didn’t want to anymore. That was 10 years ago, and I’m still doing it. I always get that anxiety before the season, that feeling that I just can’t wait for it to start. I still have that burning desire inside me, and the flame’s still burning.”
Despite the loss of 10 seniors from last year’s team (and 11 the year before), McGroarty likes the Bambies’ chances in what should again be a stacked league. Archbishop Ryan and Little Flower should be serious players, but McGroarty was quick to say people should be careful as far as counting his own team out goes. He returns just two seniors — Erin McCarthy and Cassidy Rajkowski — but also brings back a plethora of players who got varsity experience as youngsters a year ago.
“Two seniors, that’s a low amount,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time, if ever, where it’s been that few. That’s new, so there will be a lot more teaching. The biggest thing will be getting our chemistry right, which won’t come until we play enough so that we all know each other. It will get there. We’ll manage. We have a good group of kids.”
Watching McGroarty coach a Bambies practice is proof enough that the old-school boss hasn’t lost a step. He meticulously divided the players into three groups, then stalked up and down the middle of the field while they scrimmaged. McGroarty is alert and perceptive at every detail, stopping mid-game to offer his players feedback and encouragement:
Following a failed corner kick: Do it again! We have to be better!
During a lapse in coverage that led to a goal against the first unit: That can NOT happen!
When a player’s idea of a cross pass didn’t quite materialize as hoped: Hey, that’s a great idea! Just put it a bit stronger across!
McCarthy, one of McGroarty’s most veteran players, soaked it all up and expressed how lucky she felt to absorb lessons from a coaching legend.
“He knows everyone and everyone knows him,” the team’s defensive stopper said. “He’s easygoing. He’s very old school while being very fair at the same time. He gets right to the point with us. If somebody does something wrong, he knows the exact thing to say to help us get better.”
Decades of experience will do that to a coach, and McGroarty said he sticks around not to win more league titles, but to help young women use soccer as a tool to get themselves into college and further their education in becoming productive members of society.
“I can’t even comprehend right now how many have gone on to college to play soccer,” he said. “I’ve forgotten how many, but it’s been a lot over the years. It’s great to utilize something like this in order to get an education and become whatever they go on to become. One of the good things is the mothers trusting their daughters to me, and I think it’s because they know what I am and what I’m about.
“When I started this, I had no idea I’d be here for however many years. To last as long as I have and be successful with the kids, that’s something. You look back on it and you say, ‘You know what? That’s something that I can be proud of.’ ”
McGroarty knows in a league this strong, the Bambies will have their work cut out for them in trying to win the program’s first title in 12 years. He pointed to the back-to-back titles Ryan has won, relying on a ton of sophomores and juniors to earn the ultimate prize.
“We’re kind of in the same boat, and I hope we get the same results as they (Ryan) did,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to re-tool and re-load. We don’t have a choice. But we’ll work for it, and we want it. I’m expecting us to be good. How good? That’s to be determined.”
And if the Bambies still need another year of seasoning, that’s OK, too. After all, the 2015 season will be McGroarty’s 40th, and he’s not planning on hanging his whistle up anytime soon.
“I hope I stay healthy long enough to go on as long as I can,” he said. “I have no plans on setting a number or a year. Someday, I’ll just wake up and say, ‘You know that? I think it’s time.’ ” ••