Jon Stapleton has been around boys soccer at Downers Grove South for more than four decades.
In numerous roles with the program, his name has become synonymous with success and first-class sportsmanship.
That’s what made Stapleton’s recent decision to resign after 22 seasons as head coach so shocking.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” Stapleton said. “Someone asked me what was the one thing that made you make the decision. I think that’s a hard question to answer.
“It’s a feeling you kind of have, I guess. There’s an old expression: ‘When you know, you know.’
“That’s kind of where I was after 22 years. I felt maybe it was time for the program to have a fresh perspective, some renewed energy just to jumpstart the program and take it to the next level.”
Stapleton took Downers Grove South to the pinnacle of high school soccer in Illinois. As a boy he watched the Mustangs play under program founder Chuck Novotny. Stapleton became a player, assistant coach and finally the head coach at the school.
The 1994 graduate, who played for Barry Jacobson, returned after college to serve as an assistant to Mike Wiggins before taking the reins as head coach in 2002.
In his third season at the helm, Stapleton guided to the Mustangs to the 2004 Class AA state championship with a 1-0 overtime title game victory over Buffalo Grove at North Central College.
“It was a dream come true,” Stapleton said. “I was a regular ballboy on the sidelines back in the early ‘80s when they made trips downstate with Chuck Novotny coaching.
“Gosh, you couldn’t write a better script. It was really incredible and a neat experience. I remember it like it was yesterday even though it will be 20 years this fall.”
The achievement gave Downers Grove South just its second state championship in a boys sport after the 2001 football title. The boys volleyball team joined the list in 2013.
Stapleton ends his head coaching career as the program leader in wins and posted a record of 258-158-57. He was the fourth head coach in program history, following Novotny (118 wins), Jacobson (99) and Wiggins (97), who is the longtime head coach at Hinsdale Central.
The Mustangs won six West Suburban Conference Gold Division titles and seven regional championships under Stapleton. They played in three sectional finals, winning one.
Beyond the wins and losses, Stapleton also was proud of the fact the Mustangs won the IHSSCA Section 2 Sportsmanship Award in 2002, 2008 and 2018. They also won the state honor in 2008.
“One of the things I’m most proud of with the program is I think we’ve always had a family kind of atmosphere,” Stapleton said. “Guys coming back when they’re in college to say ‘Hi.’
“This year a couple guys from the first team I coached back in ’02 came back, and they were bringing their own kids. Those moments to me are every bit as special as the victories, even the state championship.
“That made it so difficult to retire. It was a challenge to get the words out to the kids.”
Stapleton’s legacy will continue for years through the former players who followed him into the profession. His coaching tree includes Oswego East boys coach Steve Szymanski, who was the goalkeeper on South’s Elite Eight team in 1997 and an assistant coach on the state championship squad, current Downers Grove South girls coach Chris Hernandez and Naperville North’s Steve Goletz.
Goletz, who has won three state championships as head coach of the Huskies’ girls program since 2012 and three more as an assistant under Jim Konrad on the boys side, was the goalkeeper for the sophomore team when Stapleton coached it in 1999.
“My coaching career started at Downers Grove South, because he let me come back and work summer camps when I was in college,” said Goletz, who played at Northern Illinois. “That’s what inspired me to be a coach.
“I knew that this is the route I wanted to go. I will forever be indebted to him for that opportunity, and I try to emulate what he has done.”
One of those things is caring about players at every level.
“The thing I will always remember about Jon was his ability to relate to his players and make them feel like they were the most important thing in the world,” Goletz said. “Jon made me feel that way as a sophomore.
“Every kid wants to be a varsity player in high school, but when you have exceptional lower-level coaches, which Jon was at the time, it’s an easier pill to swallow when you weren’t playing for the top level of your school.”
Stapleton knew how to motivate his players. Goletz has a favorite memory from his time on the sophomore team when Stapleton, who was then in his mid-20s, offered the Mustangs a way to end practice early.
“He told us that practice would be over if everybody on the team could beat him in a full-field sprint,” Goletz recalled. “He ran full speed as hard as he could with a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds, and he beat 99 percent of us.
“The funny thing was he was so lightheaded after that sprint that the athletic trainer had to bring the golf cart out and drive him back to his car. We ended up having practice obviously be over, because he wasn’t able to coach the rest of the practice. We still joke about that.
“That was Jon to a T. He would always make you laugh, would teach you the life lessons that were important.
“He was a great soccer coach, but he was a better teacher in regards to what was most important -- what you would want your kids to aspire to.”
Stapleton intends to remain in the soccer program at Downers Grove South, just in a different and less stressful capacity.
“I have six more years left of teaching and my plan is to continue coaching in the program as long as they will have me,” he said. “Where I’m placed will be dependent upon the new coach, whether I’m a varsity assistant or back at the lower level. I’m kind of open to anything.”
Goletz is happy for Stapleton but sad for the sport.
“Konrad and I talked this weekend just how much of a loss it us for us as a (head) coaching fraternity that Jon is no longer a part of it at the varsity level,” Goletz said. “We know Jon will still be there, but he was truly one of the best when it comes to making his kids believe that high school soccer was the most important thing in the world.
“Whomever takes over is going to coach a program that’s in great shape. But I know that it’s not going to be the same, because Jon truly was one of a kind in what he did and what he was able to offer everybody that came through Downers South’s program.”
No head coach, of course, can build a program alone, and Stapleton gave credit to those around him, from players, assistant coaches and the community in general.
“I feel very blessed,” Stapleton said. “I had tremendous parental support and administrative support.
“Novotny has been a great support. Even this fall, he came to a couple games at 91 years old. Just the fact that he wanted to come back and watch a game and talk with me on the sidelines, those are pretty special moments, too.”
A chapter of Stapleton’s life has ended, though the book is still being written.
“It’s been an incredible run,” Stapleton said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I just felt like the time was right.”
Even so, many are not ready to see him go.
“It’s bittersweet for me but I totally understand where he’s coming from,” Goletz said. “I know it will give him more time to spend with his family. I wish him nothing but the best.”