URBANA — James Barkley doesn’t have much trouble finding someone to tell him how he affected the Urbana boys’ soccer program during the last four seasons.
“My son likes to remind me how all the players carried me to success,” Barkley said with a laugh, “and what I have to say to him is, ‘Of course they did.’ … That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
While 2022 Urbana graduate Noah Barkley might enjoy having a laugh at his father’s expense, there’s no ignoring what Urbana accomplished with James Barkley at the helm.
Barkley has stepped aside as the Tigers’ coach after a fruitful stretch that included 47 wins, plus Class 2A sectional and regional titles last fall.
Urbana finished one win short of qualifying for the 2A state tournament during its most recent season, ending with a 19-1-2 record last fall. That garnered Barkley News-Gazette All-Area boys’ soccer Coach of the Year distinction.
Mikolaj Kowalski is succeeding Barkley as the Tigers’ coach. Kowalski, whose appointment was approved by the school board earlier this month, is also the Urbana girls’ soccer coach.
“A ton of success. It was an amazing experience,” Barkley said Friday. “One I’ll always treasure. … I was spoiled in so many respects, with the facilities and the students. It’s my alma mater. The people are great. So I have nothing but great memories of my time as the head coach.”
Barkley became just the second coach in Tigers boys’ soccer history when Randy Blackman — who coached Barkley in the 1990s — retired after the 2017 campaign. Barkley’s ascent coincided with Noah entering Urbana as a freshman in 2018.
“They didn’t have anyone working in the building that really was able to take the program over, and so it seemed like the right time for me to step in,” said Barkley, who works outside the district. “The plan was essentially a four-year stint with the idea that we could find someone during that time to take the program into the future from there — and preferably someone who works in the building.”
Kowalski’s first season directing the Tigers’ girls’ soccer team transpired in spring 2022. The squad finished with a 4-10-2 record.
Barkley said he plans to serve as an assistant coach under Kowalski on the girls’ side. Barkley’s daughter, Celia, is a junior athlete in that program.
“Micky has a soccer background. He’s played at a high level competitively, and he was my (boys’) assistant last year,” James Barkley said. “He’s just a really great fit and a young PE teacher at the high school. So far, everything is going to plan.”
Barkley’s final season overseeing the Urbana boys’ soccer team was followed by six of his athletes — Noah included — signing with college programs to continue their playing careers. The Tigers boasted 10 seniors during the 2021 fall season.
“It was just an incredible season,” James Barkley said. “An incredible few seasons of success and just the right culture.”
Beyond watching his son play in general, Barkley cites a couple of memories among his favorites while coaching the Tigers. One was 2022 graduate Chico Wilson heading home a match-tying goal with less than a minute remaining in regulation versus Champaign Central last fall, preceding a marathon penalty kicks session that ended with Urbana winning 11-10.
“People kind of forgot about that one after all the hoopla,” Barkley said, “but that was exciting.”
Another was Noah blasting a shot from about 30 yards out during a 2019 match at Rantoul and creating a confusing situation.
“(The ball) screamed through the net of the Rantoul goal, and they didn’t count it because the refs couldn’t see it,” James Barkley said. “The nets had a little space under the bar. He blasted it through that space so hard, it tore the net just a little bit. And the ball didn’t slow down at all. … It’s one of the hardest shots I’ve ever seen live.”
Barkley isn’t closing the door on a return to head coaching down the road. Probably good news for some other group of young athletes for a coach who helped keep Urbana boys’ soccer stellar reputation intact.
“I would never say never because I’ve always coached since I was a young kid,” Barkley said. “I’m sure I’ll coach again at some point, in some capacity. Especially at a point if I’m so lucky I should retire healthy, I’ll have some extra time.”
Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @clikasNG.