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Examiner
  • End of rich sports history 'sad' for Trojans

  • St. Mary’s High School coach Tom Bates is trying his best to put a positive spin on a situation that makes him sick to his stomach, and it has nothing do with the thousands and thousands of pancake breakfasts he served his boys and girls teams over the years.

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  • St. Mary’s High School coach Tom Bates is trying his best to put a positive spin on a situation that makes him sick to his stomach, and it has nothing do with the thousands and thousands of pancake breakfasts he served his boys and girls teams over the years.
    The legendary boys and girls track and cross country coach led the Trojans to a combined six state championships.
    On Sunday night, he attended the last graduation ceremony in the history of the 159-year-old Independence institution that is closing its doors this week, and he did his best to put a positive spin on the school’s demise.
    “I heard some people say it was a like a funeral,” Bates said. “I’d like to think of it as more of a sad graduation. It was a special night for the seniors, but it was a sad night. What really struck me was how quickly the past 36 years have gone by.
    “Have I really been at St. Mary’s for 36 years? My goodness, I see some of my past runners and they look older than me. Some of them are even bald.”
    He chuckled, and added, “None of the girls were bald, just my former boy runners.”
    Bates led the Trojans to their first state championship in school history with a boys track and field title in 1971. The following year, Bill Cox led the Trojans to their first football state crown.
    The girls track and field team won back-to-back titles in 1976 and 1977, the girls cross country team won a title in 1993, the boys cross country team won in 1994 and the girls cross country squad won the final state championship in school history in 2003. St. Mary’s won the state baseball championship in 1997 but had to forfeit it after it was discovered the Trojans had used a player who was academically ineligible.
    St. Mary’s has totaled 28 final four and state championship appearances.
    “I remember everything about that football championship,” said Cox, whose lengthy coaching resume included stops at Lillis, Southwest, Northeast, St. Mary’s (for five years), Fort Osage, Park Hill, Pleasant Hill and Raytown South. “We were 11-0. I think we played nine regular-season games and had the two postseason games. It was all so different back then. We practiced for an hour and 50 minutes. We didn’t get anyone hurt at practice and the boys were home for dinner.
    “We played St. Louis Country Day in the championship game and we won 6-0. We had a running back named Johnny Luteran and he ran for 137 yards and scored our only touchdown. We missed the extra point, but our defense held on for the win.
    “It was snowing like crazy that day and the St. Louis coach came over to congratulate me after the game and he asked if Johnny was wearing snow shoes, because he was the only kid out there who could do anything in the snow.
    Page 2 of 2 - “All our kids were multiple-sports kids. When we won state track in 1971, a lot of those kids were on the 1972 state championship football team. A lot of those kids graduated after we won that football championship and the next season we were 5-5.
    “I might have coached them, but the kids went out and won those games.”
    Like so many people involved with St. Mary’s, Cox is sad to see the school close its doors.
    “I hope when they open the new school, that school people run it and it’s not run by CEOs and bankers,” Cox said. “It’s going to be hard to imagine Independence without St. Mary’s. I was only there five years, but I will always be a part of the St. Mary’s family.”
    Mike Espinosa is another former St. Mary’s coach who will always bleed blue and white, even though he now coaches volleyball at Raytown South High School.
    From 1983 to 2010, he coached volleyball, basketball and, for one season, boys volleyball (in a club sport that was not sanctioned by the Missouri State High School Activities Association).
    “I helped Jim Campbell coach girls basketball in 1983 and became the head volleyball coach in 1986,” said Espinosa, who led the volleyball team to six of their seven final four appearances. “During the school year of 1996-97 I went from volleyball, to boys basketball to boys volleyball. That was a busy year.”
    He said the last graduation was one of the most bittersweet moments of his life.
    “It was more of a graduation/funeral, because everyone was saying goodbye to a friend – St. Mary’s High School,” Espinosa said. “It was tough. You love seeing the kids graduate because they work so hard, but you just can’t believe this is the final year for St. Mary’s.
    “I still can’t believe it.”
    See Wednesday’s Examiner for a look at some of the best individual athletes in St. Mary’s history.
     
     
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