COLUMBIA — It’s chilly outside. Not the biting feel of winter, but the never-ending, just-cold-enough wind that makes it unpleasant to be outside.
It’s too warm for winter coats, but not warm enough for shorts. Yet the athletes of the Hickman girls soccer team are practicing in thin sweatshirts and soccer shorts.
Lindbergh at Hickman
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Hickman High School.
The team has started the season with a record of 3-2-1 and is preparing for its home opener Friday night against St. Louis-based Lindbergh High School. As the day’s practice draws to a close and the varsity team is scrimmaging, head coach Tony Gragnani still yells instructions from the sideline.
Gragnani has given the members of the varsity a scenario. They are trailing the junior varsity by two goals and have 30 minutes to take the lead. If they don't, they run.
It's an exercise in composure and executing under pressure, two aspects that Gragnani feels his team needs to work on.
Gragnani, 29, grew up in St. Louis. At the age of 4, soccer and baseball began competing for his attention. He grew to find baseball, with its slow pace and long breaks between plays, boring and soccer’s fast pace and constant movement won him over. It became the sport that consumed him throughout childhood.
In 2002, he moved to Columbia to attend MU. He didn’t play soccer for the Tigers, but instead focused on an education degree. He loved Columbia so much that he stayed after graduating in 2006 and then a coaching opportunity at Hickman arose.
“I was coaching youth soccer in the area and (Hickman) head coach Jon Strodtman was looking for a volunteer for his program,” Gragnani said.
Under Strodtman, he began moving up the coaching ranks. After Strodtman’s death in February 2008, Gragnani was named his successor in 2009. Now in his fifth year as head coach, he has ambitions to achieve a goal that has eluded his teams so far.
“We’ve had some pretty good wins again Jefferson City and some really close games with Rock Bridge,” Gragnani said. “We’ve had some wins in district, but we have yet to win a district championship.”
There is reason for Gragnani to be optimistic. The Kewpies returned all but two players from last season’s team which finished with a record of 8-13-1 and made it to the Class 3, District 9 Tournament semifinals.
The return of the majority of last season's roster in addition to a solid class of freshman made this preseason the most competitive of Gragnani's time at Hickman.
It was the first year he held tryouts for varsity, and some members of last season's team were moved down to junior varsity as a result.
"In years past, it was pretty clear who was at a varsity level," assistant coach Will Ross said. "This year, we kept telling them 'you have to earn your spot on that (varsity) team.'"
The coaches say that it was a difficult process, but they think they have a better team because of it.
“Our program’s the healthiest it has been in the eight years I’ve been here,” Gragnani said. “So I expect us to definitely be competitive for a district title.”
Ross says he thinks the three early wins helped the team build confidence and shows in their play.
The Kewpies' next game is against the Lindbergh Flyers at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hickman High School.