ORANGE PARK – St. Johns Country Day School girls soccer coach Mike Pickett, with his 12th title in 2020, added yet another trophy to his ever-enlarging trophy case with a selection the Maxpreps Top 100 coaches list nationwide.
Maxpreps, a top nationwide sports conglomerate for coaches and schools to input and display sports teams, rosters, statistics and records, noted on their mission for the list that “But through consistent success and longevity, some coaches become the face of high school sports programs or even the school itself. It’s not all that unusual for coaches to spend 40 years at one school, leading multiple generations of athletes in a community.
We (Maxpreps) set out to identify 100 of the top high school coaches in the country, men and women who have won multiple state and national championships, set records and worked to perfect their craft over decades.
“I was told by a friend to check out the list on Maxpreps and didn’t know that my name was there,” said Pickett, 55, and 23 years as the St. Johns head coach with a slew of college athletes, professional athletes and state champion titles on his resume. “I am honored to be able to coach at the school I went to for nine years. Our boys team at St. Johns had won back-to-back state titles and wanted to return to where my family was.”
The first year of Pickett’s return to Clay County and to the coaching sideline for St. Johns girls soccer did not go as well, at first, as Pickett would have wanted.
“When I had my first parent/athlete meeting and said that we will win a state title, the whole group laughed almost to the point of crying,” said Pickett. “They were only in their sixth season when I took over. I knew the landscape of the school, good athletes there and thought it may take a while. Nine kids quit the second day of practice. The program was no more than an intramural program at best; no practice on Friday, watch the boys play and they beat everybody they played, but lost to Bolles in the playoffs.”
Though Pickett did get an Elite Eight berth for the playoffs in that fateful first season with a 3-0 loss to Bolles in the district final and earned a region playoff berth.
“The parents were coming over and chest bumping me like we had won something,” Pickett. “They were happy to not get beat 10-0, but I said that is not good enough.”
Eventually, Maclay beat Bolles in the round one playoff with St. Johns winning their region opener to set up a St. Johns vs. Maclay playoff game.
“I had one kid with club experience and coached mainly defense because no one had any ball skills,” said Pickett. “We had eight ties that year and we scored a minute into the game; Allie Bush (now coach Vanderbilt).”
With his Lady Spartans about to pull out a major upset playoff win as the game remained 1-0 into the final two minutes, Maclay set up for a corner kick.
“I relive this moment nearly every day,” said Pickett. “They kicked to the near post and my defender ducked under the incoming ball. It hits off the Maclay forward’s rear end and goes in the goal. We lost in overtime. That’s when our set pieces on corner kicks and throw-ins started becoming one of our primary weapons.”
The game that turned Pickett’s determination to a steely mettle was the 2004 Class 2A championship game againsst American Heritage.
“We were waiting to go to the field and the American Heritage team started to introduce themselves to our team,” said Pickett. “It was an intimidation move that worked. They won 1-0 and we watched them celebrate and dogpile on the field and it really shook me and the team. It all changed that day.”
St. Johns would beat American Heritage the following year, 2-1 on penalty kicks. Pickett’s teams would win again in 2005 and 2007 before starting their championship string of nine titles from 2012.
“We have never lost a final after that 2004 game,” said Pickett.
From Florida, the Top 100 list includes Hall of Famer Bill Castle, football coach at Lakeland High for 26 years, who won has two national high school titles and seven Florida titles (2018 most recent, 7A region final 2019) with over 400 wins including five successive undefeated seasons; Lake Highland Prep girls lacrosse coach Chris Robinson, with nine state titles in the 2010s in Maryland before coming to Lake Highland to win the 2019 title; Miami Country Day School girls basketball coach Ochiel Swaby with 358 wins in 16 years and six state titles and the national coach of year last year and Carlos Giron, St. Thomas Aquinas High School girls soccer coach with 15 state titles and over 800 wins.
Giron, one of Pickett’s top challengers for state supremacy, has been on Pickett’s radar the past decade with the two powerhouse programs attempting to get on the same field, but only having one successful match; a St. Johns 2-0 win last year at a mid-season Montverde Academy tournament.
“Carlos has been coaching for like 44 years at St. Thomas Aquinas and I think he has every record that is out there,” said Pickett. “He had seasons where they did not give up a goal all season. We have had him scheduled like three times in my career and the game didn’t happen; twice in Tallahassee.
In 2019, Pickett and Giron finally got on the same field and the Lady Spartans won 2-0 while also losing their only game of the season, a 1-0 match to Lake Highland Prep, in the same Monteverde tournament.
“We went from one spectrum of winning a big to losing a disappointing one with like 17 missed chances against Lake Highland Prep, who played very well against us,” said Pickett. “We hit the goal post so many times and had one controversial crossbar hit that was said to have hit the football goalpost crossbar first. I joke that I don’t want to play St. Thomas anymore after winning that one, but I would love to have them on our schedule every year. Our schedules are always very tough.”
Pickett’s long history at St. Johns, with a 465-57-30 won/lost record, includes 16 Final Fours, his 12 titles including an ongoing nine in a row from 2012 through 2020, with a state runnerup finish in 2004. Seven times, St. Johns has been ranked in the top 10 nationally with a number one rank in 2017 and an unbeaten 26-0 record for 2018 getting the 2018 nationally number one ranking.
Pickett’s teams have produced a slew of college standouts including daughter Carson Pickett who won a national title with Florida State University and is now a professional for the Orlando Pride. Others recently include Chelsea Burns (Duke), Megan Rogers (Navy), Justine Quick (Central Florida), Abbey Newton (LSU/FSU now), Peyton Crews (Texas Christian), Alisa Detlefsen (Troy) and Kami Loustau (Princeton).
“One of my favorites of all time to watch play was Anna Martorana (2004),” said Pickett. “She had 67 goals, won a 2A title; was crazy in front of the goal. She would run over her grandmother to score a goal. She played some college, including two goals in her first game against number one Nebraska.”
Pickett plans to continue his coaching at St. Johns Country Day School with a new soccer academy about to kick off in June 2020 at St. Johns Country Day School, the North Florida Soccer Academy.
“The Academy is to develop area players to be successful at the next levels,” said Pickett, who will joined on his Academy coaching staff by daughter Carson, long-time assistant coach and now St. Johns boys soccer coach Brad Schmidt and Shawn Nicklaw, a former Guam national team member and former Jacksonville Armada. “We’ve trained 102 kids just last week.