The Aquinas connection

Marquette will be moving all varsity sports from Conference USA to the Big East Conference next school year. To commemorate Marquette's 10th and final year in C-USA, the Tribune is running a series taking a look at each varsity sport. This second installment examines the influence St. Thomas Aquinas High School has had on the Marquette men's soccer team throughout its stay in C-USA.

The atmosphere is intense, and a premium is placed on winning and developing talent. The program is steeped in tradition, and there is a team hall of fame.

Practices include film sessions and walk-throughs, not just running drills. Kids dream of one day lacing up their cleats and donning the team's jersey before a big game.

This is not a reference to the New York Yankees or Notre Dame football (during the Lou Holtz years). No, this is how four members of the Marquette men's soccer team characterized their high school program at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kan.

"It started out with a tremendous amount of good players there," said Steven Grow, one of Marquette's freshman goalkeepers and a three-year starter at STA.

"Then kids like me, just thinking about that, when we're in fourth grade we say, 'We want to go to St. Thomas Aquinas because it has good soccer.' I think just over the past 11 to 12 years, St. Thomas Aquinas has just become the powerhouse of the Kansas City area."

Since 1992, the Saints have won the state tournament eight times and finished second on three occasions. The program's reputation has spread beyond the Great Plains, and nearly every year it is ranked among the top 25 in the nation.

Marquette head coach Steve Adlard has capitalized on the abundance of nearby talent and turned STA into a sort of Marquette feeder program.

Derek Gutierrez, Chris Lee, Matt Blouin, Pat Knoelke and Grow are former Saints who have come to Marquette to play soccer and a sixth STA graduate, Jamie Zarse, will join the Golden Eagles in the fall.

Adlard believes he has had success recruiting students from STA in part because there are few high-level soccer programs close to the Catholic high school.

"There is only one Division I school within several hours of there, and that's UMKC (Missouri-Kansas City)," Adlard said.

"Drake is the next nearest, which is in Des Moines … you start to spread the net a little wider and Marquette fits into that next geographical piece."

Once Adlard landed Gutierrez as part of the 2000 recruiting class, the door opened and the STA graduates started recruiting their former teammates.

"I remember getting a letter from him (Derek), actually a hand-written letter, saying how much he enjoyed it and that I should look into it," said Blouin, a sophomore forward.

"I did that and then I started talking to Chris Lee about it too."

Blouin, who holds numerous records at STA, including most goals and most points in a season, has continued to be successful in college because he has been playing with his teammates for an extended period of time.

He knows what runs Lee likes to make and where he likes to get the ball. The relationship the STA grads enjoyed in high school carried over to Marquette in part because they were familiar with their teammates' tendencies.

"Me and Matt Blouin have obviously a connection, since we played together for a long time," said Knoelke, a midfielder who walked onto the team two years ago.

"On the field we both kind of know where the other one is going at times," he said.

It was obvious in the fall that Lee and Blouin also had a connection.

They could anticipate what type of runs the other would make and get the ball there because they played together in high school, too.

All the familiar faces also helped the newcomers ease into life as a college student-athlete.

"Playing with Matt and Pat for two years at Aquinas and going through a lot with them and then coming into preseason, it was just an extremely comfortable feeling having them in front of me," Grow said.

"I know what they do and what they bring to the team … that was definitely a positive."

Now it is Grow's turn to continue the cycle of helping the new STA guy get acclimated and recruiting players from the next group of stars.

"Jamie Zarse is coming in next year from Aquinas," Grow said.

"He was a standout senior this year and we're looking for another player for possibly the next year, it's just a great program."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 7 2005.