Every once in a while, things just seem to come together for a particular local school.
In the 2020-21 school year, that school was Union.
No other area school found the same type of varied success as Union High School. The county seat’s institution sent teams to state semifinals in three different seasons.
There was one team which won a state championship. Union captured the Missouri Cheerleading Coaches Association Class 3A Small title.
Two more teams, Union’s girls soccer and girls basketball, finished third in their respective classes.
Union’s football team reached the state semifinals. Technically, the Wildcats tied for third place as there is no consolation contest for semifinal losers in that sport.
Additionally, Union had one individual champion (Daniel Thwing in the 100-meter dash), a third-place finisher (Jaiden Powell at 174 pounds in girls wrestling) and two fourth-place finishers (Powell in the discus and Ella Coppinger in the 300 hurdles).
Garrett Klenke placed 14th in the Class 4 golf championships.
Perhaps we should have known something special was coming during the fall season.
Union’s football Wildcats lost their first two games. They beat Pacific, 41-40, in one of the most exciting back-and-forth contests. Playing on Pacific’s turf, the teams traded the lead multiple times.
Union wasn’t the best team in the Four Rivers Conference. St. Clair had that honor. Owensville beat the Wildcats by 40 points Oct. 9 just before Union had to take a two-week hiatus for COVID-19 protocols.
During that break, something clicked. Union came back and dominated Clayton to start the playoffs, 42-0. The Wildcats then edged Sullivan in the district semifinals, 21-20.
In the championship game, Union headed to John Burroughs and dominated the Bombers on a wet Saturday afternoon, 26-7.
Justin Grahl’s team followed up with a quarterfinal home win over Festus, 34-25.
The end came in the semifinals at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS).
Union had many standouts. Donavan Rutledge was a sure-handed receiver who pulled in key passes in the semifinal game.
Josh Meyer anchored a solid defensive line.
John Martin was a third-team all-state offensive lineman. Alton Hubbard made the all-state third team as a linebacker with 110 tackles.
Diego Orozco was the team’s kicker and was a key member of Union’s 18-4-1 boys soccer team. By the time the year ended, Orozco had a part in four sports as an athlete.
The heart and soul of the football Wildcats was Gavin Wencker. An all-state first-team defensive back, Wencker stepped up in the clutch as a running back as well.
Even though Union graduated important players from that team, it has a good base for next year and should be one of the favorites to win the FRC title.
In the winter, the honors went to Pat Rapert’s girls basketball Lady ’Cats.
Like the football team, the basketball Lady ’Cats were plagued by COVID-19 issues.
Union had to miss its own tournament due to a COVID-19 situation, and weather kept it from playing for the St. Francis Borgia Tournament title.
Union didn’t win the Four Rivers Conference, falling at St. James in the regular season finale.
In the postseason, Union vanquished Sullivan in the district final and Ursuline Academy in the sectional round.
Union earned its first state trip by upsetting Cape Notre Dame on the road March 13, 60-43. That marked Union’s first state trip since 1980.
In the semifinals, Union fought back against West Plains but ended up losing by three points. Union came back and got a 31-point performance from Class 5 player of the year Reagan Rapert to beat William Chrisman to tie the school’s best-ever finish in that sport (1979).
Union had a unique squad. Six of the players — Rapert, Emily Gaebe, Julia Overstreet, Megan Siedhoff, Maddie Helling and Jessi Clark — were seniors. The rest were freshmen.
Gaebe, Helling and freshmen Mya Minor and Kelsey Brake continued that success into the spring season with Union’s girls soccer team.
Unlike the others, there was little surprise in Union’s prowess in that sport. Union has dominated the Four Rivers Conference. Union continued that, although it had to fight back from a two-goal deficit against Pacific to repeat as the league winner.
Union had three NCAA Division I recruits in Gaebe (Saint Louis University), Helling (Indiana State) and Emma Cloud (Arkansas State), a Division II signee (Kaitlyn Hobson with Lindenwood) and an NAIA recruit (Kaylee Simpson with Missouri Baptist).
The Lady ’Cats had little trouble with Class 3 District 9, outscoring the opponents by an 11-0 margin. Union beat Pacific for the district title in Rolla.
In the sectional round, the Lady ’Cats rolled past Springfield Catholic, 4-0. Union then won on the road at Webb City, 6-1. Webb City scored on a penalty kick.
Facing eventual state champion Ft. Zumwalt South, Union scored first. A goal in the final two minutes gave Ft. Zumwalt South the win, and the Lady Bulldogs had little trouble with Grain Valley in the championship game.
Union won the third-place game over St. Louis Notre Dame, 1-0, for the program’s best-ever finish.
There were many standouts. Gaebe concluded her stellar career with 155 career goals and 36 assists. That came over three years as there was no 2020 season (thanks to COVID-19). With a fourth year, Gaebe probably would’ve threatened Bethany Coons’ school goal-scoring record of 186.
The central defense pair of Helling and Cloud was solid and made it tough to get through against Union’s goalkeepers.
Sydney Ransom, a junior, emerged from a three-player scramble in net to grab the starting job and turned the position into a strength. Anyone following that team knew it was going as far as goalkeeping would carry it. Ransom stepped up to the challenge.
Head Coach Matt Fennessey’s challenge next year won’t be quite as steep as the girls basketball team as many younger players saw considerable playing time during the season.
The 2022 Lady ’Cats will depend upon the play of players such as Ransom, the Minor sisters (Maliyah and Mya), Aubrie Golus, Kelsey Brake, Mia Smith, Logan Baeres and the third-place game goal-scorer, Addison Williford.
Others also will step up. That’s been what this program is known for doing.
We don’t get these types of stories every year. The last time a local school was dominant in many different areas was Washington in 2016-17.
It’s going to be fun to find the next area school to really step up and stand out.