Even 13 years later, one of Huntley girls soccer coach Kris Grabner's most vivid memories is of his first game in charge of the Red Raiders in 2004.
The year before, Huntley's new team had gone winless (and tie-less) as a JV-only program. In the Red Raiders' first varsity game, and Grabner's first as coach, they trailed, 3-0, at halftime to Indian Creek on a miserable day.
"We go out in the first game, it's 38 degrees, it's raining sideways, I'm stepping around puddles in the first half, and finally I'm just like, 'It doesn't even matter, standing in 'em,' " Grabner recalled Friday. "There's girls on the field that are so cold they're crying and asking to come off the field, and we're like, 'It's colder over here sitting down than being out there running around.' "
The Red Raiders came back to win, 4-3, earning the program's first victory.
"That's an incredibly vivid memory," Grabner said.
Last week, Huntley beat Cary-Grove in the Class 3A Huntley sectional semifinals, earning the program's 229th win, but its last under Grabner.
After bowing out in the sectional finals, it was announced that Grabner is stepping away from coaching the girls team. Grabner said he will at least continue to coach the boys soccer team in the upcoming fall season and then reassess his time commitment.
He said it wasn't an easy decision to leave the girls team, which has grown into a perennial power.
"Definitely, it’s been 14 years of my life," Grabner said. "The girls that have come through the program have been kind of like daughters to me. They’re pretty special. You start to think about everybody that’s come through and the players that have built the program, and yeah, it’s definitely difficult to step away.”
Grabner said that he gave the school his resignation from the position a few weeks ago but didn't want to announce it before the team's postseason run had ended and take any attention away.
“It was a big shock, and we were all upset about it, but he’s done a lot for us,” said Tayah Owens, a senior captain on this year’s team. “He coached my sister for the four years that she went there, he’s coaching my brother still, and it’s sad that he’s leaving, but he’s still there for the boys, so that’s good, that he’s still there.”
The primary reason he's leaving his coaching post is an academic one.
District 158 is one of 10 school districts that was selected this year to participate in a statewide pilot program for high school graduation based on competency rather than classroom time. While the program doesn’t start until the 2018-19 school year, they will be working on it next year, and as the math department leader on that pilot program, Grabner said, “I just know that’s going to be a huge amount of time and commitment. So from the standpoint of being able to put my full efforts into it, I knew I needed to reduce my outside responsibilities.”
He also said he’s thinking about getting his administrative certification and getting more involved in athletic director or activities director positions.
Another consideration is his son Jake Grabner’s collegiate golf season. Jake, a Huntley graduate, competes for Loras College in Iowa. The elder Grabner – an avid golfer himself – said it was difficult not getting to watch Jake’s freshman season this past year, and he plans to do more of that now.
While the entire soccer program has grown under his watch – the boys have won 130 games and a couple of regional titles – the girls program has truly flourished. Grabner leaves with the 229 career victories on the girls side, 12 consecutive winning seasons, 11 consecutive regional titles, three sectional titles and a fourth-place finish at state in 2016.
“We’ve had some pretty outstanding players come through," Grabner said. "I think the biggest piece is the competitive nature of the girls we’ve had come through. The fire and the passion toward the game and the desire to play it at the highest level that they can play it at.”
Grabner’s first two years with the Huntley girls were his only losing seasons, and even then, they improved from 3-15 in 2004 to 7-12 in 2005. In 2006, Huntley went 14-6 but didn’t capture any postseason hardware, the final time that would happen under Grabner. In 2007, Huntley went 19-3 and won a Class 2A regional title, beginning the 11-year run. The Red Raiders consistently have contended for conference titles and sent players on to the college level.
“He was hard on us, but he always kept a good relationship with us,” Owens said. “He was always there for us if we needed something, and he was always winning to help us out with anything.
"He kept it a good relationship with us while also being hard on us with soccer and pushing us to the best we can be and helping us understand that what we think is our limit isn’t actually our limit, and there’s more. He was always pushing us to be better.”
The coach known for a spirited sideline presence said that stepping back won't keep him away entirely next year, although he might be up in the press box where the referees can't hear him.
“I don’t plan on becoming a ghost,” Grabner said. “I still have a passion for it. There’s just other things that right now need to take a precedence over it. I’m extremely close with the coaches, and I think they’ll do an outstanding job, and I’ll be there to support them in any way I can.”