John Kerr waited 22 years for last Saturday.
When a desperation Farragut foul in the closing minutes robbed him of a likely crowning moment in a long and distinguished career, the Maryville High School soccer coach reacted with the grace of a champion he deservedly should have been.
“We’ve got to put this behind us and move on,” he said.
Tuesday night in Oak Ridge, the man most responsible for high school soccer in Blount County likely coached his last game. The Wildcats put home a goal in each half and held off a late Rebel charge to take the Region 2AAA semifinal, 2-1, ending Maryville’s season.
Assistant coach Steve Feather is expected to be named the new Rebel skipper in the near future, with Kerr’s son, Andy, returning as his assistant. If the Maryville administration approves the change, John Kerr said he will stay on in an advisory role, but the program he founded all those years ago — Blount County’s first for prep soccer — is now in their hands.
Tuesday wasn’t a fitting end.
Maryville outshot Oak Ridge, 14-11, pulling within a goal late when senior Oscar Sanchez headed in a corner kick from freshman Austin Pugh. A sluggish first half, where the Rebels failed to convert on a pair of tantalizing chances, was costly.
“That’s been our problem the whole year,” Kerr said, “and it came back to haunt us tonight.”
The District 4AAA final with Farragut a week ago cut deeper.
Farragut’s Joseph Muth received a red card ejection when he pulled down Maryville’s Ridge Carter from behind at the edge of the Admiral penalty with a handful of minutes remaining in overtime, the score knotted at 2-all. The resulting free kick, handled by the Admiral goalkeeper, came from 19 yards instead of the point-blank, breakaway tap in Carter had sized up.
Farragut put home the winner a minute later for a 3-2 victory.
“That was a professional foul, no doubt,” Maryville senior David Large said.
Euphemisms aside, the Muth foul was especially galling considering why Kerr became a high school coach and teacher in the first place.
A Maryville High and Maryville College graduate, Kerr, then a professor at New Jersey community college, said he grew alarmed at the quality of the work his students were submitting.
“I was fed up with the lack of preparation,” he said. “Instead of just complaining, I decided to do something about it.”
When a position came open at Maryville High, Kerr returned to his alma matter, launching the Rebel soccer program in 1987.
There was little to work with in the beginning. Few in the area had ever played the game. There were no development or support systems. The Rebels looked nothing like the skilled squad that came up just short on Tuesday.
“For years, we didn’t know what club (soccer) was,” Kerr said. “We played parks and rec.”
Help arrived when Vulcan/APEC began sponsoring club teams, enabling Kerr to build the Maryville High program upon a solid foundation.
“I think a lot of what we are today we owe to Vulcan,” Kerr said.
In just over a decade after his arrival, Kerr made Maryville a district power. The 1998 team, led by Feather and his son Andy, was one of his best, he said. They were the last to reach the region tournament prior to this season. Several players from the squad would go on to play on the collegiate level.
Countless Rebels have distinguished themselves through the years, perhaps none more so than Carter. The senior forward/midfielder remains the only Rebel ever to be named District 4AAA Player of the Year, so honored a year ago in a league that not only contains the three-time state champion Farragut but three-time champion Bearden as well.
The Bulldogs and Admirals have combined for six of the last seven Class AAA state crowns.
“You can’t say enough about Ridge Carter,” Kerr said. “I think the only way to describe him is incredible.”
Carter not only flourished on the soccer field, but his college choice speaks to Kerr’s career-long emphasis on academics as well. A Division I caliber player in all respects, Carter spurned offers to take his prodigious skills elsewhere, choosing instead to follow his coach to Maryville College.
“I didn’t want to play at a Division I school because I want to be a doctor,” he said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where I couldn’t focus on my studies.”
The 2008 team wasn’t his deepest, Kerr said, but their work rate was tireless. Sanchez did more than tally Maryville’s lone goal Tuesday. He sparked a Rebel offense that dominated play for much of the second half.
When Sanchez wasn’t forcing the ball deep into the Wildcat end, Pugh, playing more like a seasoned veteran than a rookie, and senior Graham Gilley took up the standard.
“I just tried to work,” Pugh said. “This is the last game of the season, and I just wanted to make the region championship.”
Tuesday’s loss stung the Rebels deeply. They’d played the Wildcats to a 2-2 tie during the regular season, rally from two goals down inside the final two minutes, Carter knocking home both goals. They’d entered Tuesday a confident team, only to be denied the program’s first berth in the region title match.
“Right now, it’s disappointing,” Large said. “In couple of weeks, I can look back on it and say we had a pretty good season.”
The Rebels also had a courageous coach who never let soccer be all that he taught.