Tim Stuckey likened it to being “stuck in a hole.” You dig into the sidewalls with your fingers and toes in hopes of climbing out, but keep sliding down.
That’s where Lincoln High School boys soccer was early in Stuckey’s tenure as head coach.
“We won four games in 2008, two games in ‘09 and four games in 2010,” he said. “We were in the midst of a tough stretch.”
It led Stuckey, his assistant coach, Donnie Bowman, and a group of parents to form a youth soccer club called FC Lincoln. It has made a huge difference, but we’ll get back to that.
The “tough stretch” on the field coincided with a scary and emotional time away from it for Tim and Sara Stuckey. One of their four sons, Nate, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4 in 2009.
It was a lengthy battle that included 40 months of chemotherapy from 2009 to February 2013. Nate Stuckey is now a sophomore reserve on his father’s team, a victory in this season of unprecedented wins. Again, we’ll get back to that.
Even in his program’s most challenging seasons, Tim Stuckey could count on the support of his parents, Dennis and Gloria. They would travel from their home in Rochester to watch the Railers play in the Springfield area and occasionally in Lincoln.
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They sat through some lopsided losses, offering encouragement, and later were regulars at the annual Kick Cancer night at a late-season Lincoln home game. The event was started by the Stuckeys following Nate’s illness to raise money for local pediatric cancer patients.
The most recent was in the spring because the IHSA boys soccer season was delayed by COVID-19. The next is on Oct. 12.
“My mom and dad always made a point to come to that,” Tim Stuckey said. “In the spring, that was the first one they didn’t make it to.”
Dennis Stuckey died of COVID-19 in December. He was 74.
Ten months later, his son’s team is having a record-breaking season. The Railers were 15-0-2 entering a weekend tournament at Mattoon. The win total is the highest in program history and certain to climb. Star goal scorer Garrett Slack says fellow students “know about our games and know how we’ve been doing and when we play.” That’s a first for Lincoln soccer at a basketball school.
Dennis Stuckey would be loving this, which makes it all a bit “bittersweet,” Tim said.
It felt that way in the spring as well during a 14-6-2 season, especially on Senior Night. The coach’s oldest son, Noah, was among the seniors.
“I’ve been coaching since 2000 (at Lincoln since 2004), so I have given the ‘This is the last game you’ll play’ speech to the seniors every year,” Tim Stuckey said. “To give it when my own son was a senior and with my father not being there anymore … I couldn’t get through it. I stopped and tapped Donnie (Bowman) and said, ‘OK, they’re all yours.’
“Just the other day I was thinking, ‘My parents have always been very supportive.’ It’s a shame that this year we’re on such a roll …”
Chances are Dennis Stuckey is watching, and smiling, from above. He was aware of the years of sweat and sacrifice that went into what his son calls “a very long build.”
It began with the formation of FC Lincoln in 2009-2010. It has provided the high school program with more players and a stronger base.
Among this year’s seniors is 6-foot-5 goalkeeper Jaden Klopp, whose wingspan serves him well in goal and on the basketball court. Klopp has become Lincoln’s season and career record-holder in shutouts, something he attributes to the stout defense in front of him.
“I haven’t had to block many shots,” he said.
There’s also this:
“We’ve been playing together since we were little,” Klopp said. “I feel like that’s what helps us. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses … how to play together.”
Senior starting defenders include Ethan Bivin, Drew Bowman and Austin Erb. The offense has funneled through Garrett Slack, who has surpassed 100 goals for his career and had a school-record 36 this season heading into the weekend.
“It’s been pretty exciting,” he said of Lincoln’s soccer emergence. “I think we’ve all been kind of expecting it. We’ve been working hard for the past few years. A lot of our team are really good friends because we’ve been playing together for probably 10 years.”
Tim Stuckey anticipated a good season, but this?
“I would say nobody expected to be undefeated at this point in the season,” he said.
The Railers are no longer “stuck in a hole.” They are atop the Apollo Conference at 7-0 after finishing second a year ago.
The long road here has been worth it.
“We are in a spot now where we will be a competitive team every year,” Stuckey said. “It won’t always be like this, but we have the numbers and the ability to keep the kids. We’ll never drop down to that two wins or four wins. It’s nice because we’ve put in so many hours with the youth.”
Sam Knox saw it firsthand. Now an assistant executive director at the Illinois High School Association, Knox had three sons play in the youth soccer program during his time as Lincoln’s athletic director from 2005-2016.
He considers Stuckey “a lifetime coach” who is “in it for the right reasons.”
“He put endless amounts of time, energy, effort and dedication into building soccer in Lincoln from scratch basically,” Knox said. “He’s one of the best. No. 1, he loves kids. He loves soccer and he loves teaching (science) and coaching.
“I know passionate is a major buzzword today, but he is truly passionate about teaching kids the right way to play, coaching the game of soccer. It’s nice to see him enjoy having successful teams after all the time he’s put in over the years.”
Knox was there for the “tough stretch,” when in addition to establishing FC Lincoln, the Stuckeys were dealing with Nate’s leukemia.
“Tim’s time going through that, he didn’t waver,” Knox said. “He was such a rock-solid dad and husband and teacher and coach. When you talked to him during those tough times, you really didn’t know that anything different was going on at home.
“He brought his best effort to school every day and taught and coached kids just like any other day.”
Now, the days are unique for Stuckey and Lincoln soccer. Each game is an opportunity for the Railers to add to a dream season, to further raise the standard for a program that has risen from the depths.
The build has been long, the work hard. They’ve earned this.
Be happy for them.
Photos: Lincoln soccer cuts down Charleston at home, 7-0
Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph. Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: pg_kindred