By FRED KRONER
Folks with a background in athletics can relate to this sentiment: At some point in our lives, there’s a coach who makes others think, “he doesn’t know a thing.”
Joey Gruner was that guy.
Not the one with the negative thought process about a coach, but that coach who was less-than-knowledgeable.
Gruner didn’t stay that way.
He retired this week as head coach of the Mahomet-Seymour girls’ soccer program which established school records for wins each of the last three seasons. Under his guidance, the Bulldogs have captured three consecutive Class 3A regional championships.
That is now.
Twenty-one years ago, the story had a much different beginning.
Gruner was teaching at Urbana High School in 1996-97. His friend and colleague, Randy Blackman, needed assistance with the Tigers’ girls’ soccer program.
“This was the beginning stages of girls’ soccer,” Gruner said.
The Urbana girls’ program was in its second year of existence that spring.
During his childhood in Fairfield, Gruner participated in multiple sports: baseball, basketball, football, golf, track and field and even volleyball.
“Not soccer, he said. “My high school didn’t have a team.”
Blackman was OK with that. Blackman was a former collegiate wrestler at Eastern Illinois University who learned soccer on the job a decade earlier when Urbana first organized its boys’ program.
Gruner was following in those footsteps.
“I learned the game through coaching,” he said. “My first exposure coaching was with Randy.”
Once a novice, now a veteran.
Gruner’s M-S players respect his knowledge, technical expertise and motivational ploys.
Among the squad members, the Fisher High School Spanish teacher is known as “Jefe,” which is the Spanish word for “boss.”
Said senior co-captain Melissa Singleton: “I have learned a lot about the game of soccer from having Coach Gruner as my coach. I’d say that Jefe really understands the game, and he knows how to fully utilize the talent and athleticism of the players on our team.”
The other senior co-captain, Meredith Johnson-Monfort, offers a similar analysis.
“Jefe really knows the game,” Johnson-Monfort said. “He spends a ton of time preparing for games and designs our training to help prepare us, and he makes great adjustments in the flow of the game.
“I think the fact that we’ve had several great comebacks in the last couple years really shows that. He’s also open to input from his players and actually asks us our opinions and then considers our thoughts.
“That’s really helped us all trust him and makes us feel like he will listen if we have a good idea. He makes all of our players feel valued when they give opinions. He shows us his respect, and in turn he receives ours.”
Gruner said it was a time-consuming process to get as fluent in the sport as he is with a foreign language.
“I contacted Janet Rayfield (UI head coach) and asked if I could come and see a practice,” Gruner said.
Rayfield graciously invited Gruner shortly after he took over the M-S program in 2011, replacing Neil Anderson.
“I intended to go once,” he said. “I ended up going to 20 different training sessions every year from that point on.
“I have two notebooks filled with charts and graphs from watching how they trained. Doing that allowed me to see how the coaches approached training different players differently and to see how it translated into games. It gave me more insight.”
Both Singleton and Johnson-Monfort have played soccer for years. Both appreciate the approach Gruner takes.
“Jefe is not like most coaches I’ve had,” Singleton said. “Growing up, most of my coaches were very gung ho, super-enthusiastic and loud, but anyone who has played varsity girls’ soccer at MSHS can tell you that Jefe is none of those things.
“I hear him yell things across the field at most twice a game, but usually less than that, and I’ve only seen him confront a referee about a call a handful of times. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, and he doesn’t give out a whole lot of praise.
“Despite the way this might appear to outsiders or new team members, though, Jefe is one of the best coaches I have ever had. He doesn’t yell across the field because he wants his players to develop their own sense of what to do in difficult situations. He wants us to be able to quickly adapt on our own, and he doesn’t micromanage our every move.
“He doesn’t confront referees often because he wants to be a role model for how to deal with authority figures, and because he wants us to understand and adapt and be able to deal with any call that comes our way, no matter how right or wrong, good or bad, it may be. He doesn’t sugarcoat things because it helps the team to learn from our mistakes, but also because that means that when he does give out praise, he really means it.
“From these things, I have learned a lot about leadership and life in general.”
Singleton’s words reflect one of Gruner’s primary objectives. As he reflects on his M-S coaching career, it’s not the won-loss record or postseason titles that are most prominent.
“I hope there are life skills they are learning as far as how to deal with success, how to deal with defeat, how to deal with people, some you click with and some you don’t,” he said, “and how to be part of something that is bigger than yourself.
“It’s not individual effort where you find satisfaction. It’s where you are part of a team of people and — using this sport — how to make everyone around me be better so we can be a better team.”
Mission accomplished, Johnson-Monfort said.
“He pushes us all everyday to be better soccer players, better teammates, and better people,” Johnson-Monfort said. “We owe him great gratitude for all that he has done for each one of us. We have learned so much about the beautiful game from him and he has been a very big part of many of our high school experiences.
“I have only the highest of remarks about Coach Gruner because he has been an amazing coach these past four years.”
After 11 years with the program — the last eight as the head coach — Gruner had made the decision to step aside long before Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to top-seeded Springfield in the Urbana Class 3A Sectional semifinals.
“From the time I started, I liked learning the game,” Gruner said. “That enjoyment has kept being there.
“Eventually, it started to fade and there’s more and more pressure. It’s hard work to raise the level of a program and it’s harder work to maintain it. It got to be more and more of a mental drain.
“I’m getting ready to move on to something different.”
Johnson-Monfort understands the toll.
“Jefe is always organized, and people have no idea how much time and mental energy he spends preparing for practices and games,” she said. “He puts in many hours outside of just our practice and our season, and we cannot thank him enough for that.
“Jefe has truly helped me to develop as a player.”
In 2016, Gruner earned his master’s degree in sports administration and has a long-term goal of “getting involved on a college campus and working with operations,” he said.
While Johnson-Monfort has been a prominent varsity player all four years with the Bulldogs, Singleton made her greatest contributions the past two seasons.
“This put me in a semi-unique position where I got the chance to experience Coach Gruner as both my coach and watch him coach varsity as a JV team member,” Singleton said. “My sophomore year, I didn’t get much playing time at all on varsity, so the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I approached Coach Gruner and asked him what I needed to improve at in order to get more playing time.
“His response was that I needed to stop getting beat on defense. This might seem a little harsh, but it was honest. It was what I needed to do. So, I kept this advice in mind, and that year during club season, I worked on not getting beat. I focused on it in practice and in games, and I got better at it. And the next year, I played a lot more varsity, and even started a few games. Coach Gruner might not be a poet with his words, but he means what he says and I think that is more important.”
Johnson-Monfort said feedback from Gruner had one purpose, to help a player improve individually or to help the team improve collectively.
“Jefe is very objective and doesn’t play favorites,” Johnson-Monfort said. “He gives very honest feedback and constructive criticism, but delivers it with respect and in a way that’s not hurtful.
“You know that he’s just trying to help you get better. I know that sometimes I try and do too much, but I had a coach tell me once that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
“Jefe gets on me about it, but he also gives me freedom to take some chances, and its helped me build confidence. He has given me numerous opportunities and has given me very much support throughout my whole high school soccer journey.”
Gruner’s days as a high school Spanish teacher could be numbered, too, especially with his wife, Angelina, retiring as a teacher from the M-S school district at the end of this month.
He won’t lack for memories, however. Gruner recognizes that he has kept the game fun for the girls who have played on his teams.
“We’ve had more than one a year go on to play college soccer,” he said. “What I’ve enjoyed is seeing all the players come through and what they move on to do in life.”
He has already demonstrated what is possible, starting to coach a sport where he had no background and leaving as the winningest girls’ soccer coach in Mahomet-Seymour history.
His final career record at M-S is 127-29-10 to go with five regional crowns in his eight seasons. This year’s 21-3 squad set the mark for wins in a season, breaking the standard (19) established last spring.
“He may be reserved at times, but he’s got a sense of humor and he genuinely cares about the team,” Singleton said, “and I’m glad I got to be a part of the program when he was the coach.”