Wildcat World Champion: Andy Gruenebaum
Part five of a six-part series.
Over the next six weeks, UKathletics.com will be showcasing six former Kentucky student-athletes who have gone on to win major championships in their respective professional sports throughout the past year. Each Thursday, a new player will be profiled.
Never before has Kentucky athletes reined as world champions in football, baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and Olympics concurrently until now. Being a Kentucky Wildcat has become synonymous with being a champion more so now than perhaps ever. The list of former Wildcats who have won a championship this year is simply staggering; gold medal winner in the Summer 2008 Olympics Tayshaun Prince, game-four starter for the World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies Joe Blanton, U.S. member of the 2008 winning Ryder Cup team J.B. Holmes, starting point-guard for the world-champion Boston Celtics Rajon Rondo, goalie for the Major League Soccer champion Columbus Crew's Andy Gruenebaum and quarterback for the 2008 NFL world-champion New York Giants Jared Lorenzen.
By Eric Lindsey, Marcus Shanks, UK Media Relations
It was never really any secret that Andy Gruenebaum had the potential and the talent to succeed and win at the next level. From the second Gruenebaum laid foot on the pitch at Kentucky, UK men’s soccer coach Ian Collins knew he had somebody special defending the net for the Wildcats.
“Obviously, Andy had a high level of potential,” Collins said. “We thought he had some tremendous upside. Coming here, he got to learn the position behind Greg (Raber) who was one of the leading goalkeepers in the country.”
Gruenebaum arrived in Lexington with a laundry list of accolades and achievements. The Overland Park, Kan., native was a four-year letter winner at Blue Valley Northing High School where he was named the National Soccer Coaches Association and the Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year following his senior year. His crowning moment came when he save four of eight penalty shots to help his team win the Kansas State High School Championship. It would be a precursor of things to come.
But when Raber went down with a season-ending injury against Indiana during the 2002 season, it was time for Gruenebaum to prove his potential on a bigger stage. Collins and the Wildcats were not disappointed.
Almost immediately, Gruenebaum became the anchor of a stingy Kentucky defense. During his first season between the pipes, Gruenebaum started seven games, saving 27 shots with a goal against average of 1.67.
"I learned a lot from (Raber),” Greunebaum said. “The history of goalies is amazing, (Brian) O'Leary, Raber and all the others. When it was my turn to go I didn't want to mess up the tradition of great goalkeeping at Kentucky. I learned a lot from Greg. He taught me a great work ethic and when he went down it was my turn to help my team.
But Collins wanted more and knew he could get more out of the 6-foot-1 keeper. Collins challenged Gruenebaum as a sophomore to take the reins of the team. Gruenebaum more than responded with one of the most successful seasons in Kentucky soccer history.
Defending the net in every minute of Kentucky’s 2003 season in goal, Gruenebaum helped the Wildcats tie a school record for fewest goals allowed in a season with 15. While he was busy recording 10 shutouts, the second-most in a single season in school history, and leading Kentucky to its third Mid-American Conference regular season title, he moved into elite category as one of the nation’s best goalkeepers.
“The biggest year in his development was his sophomore year,” Collins said. “Goalkeepers tend to develop a little bit late, like into their late 20s, but for college players it’s necessary that they develop. He really made significant strides forward. His work level picked up. His fitness level picked up. I think his understanding of the game picked up.”
Gruenebaum didn’t stop improving, though. His junior and senior seasons cemented his name among the all-time goalkeeper greats. In 2004, Gruenebaum pitched six shutouts and didn’t allow more than one goal in the final 17 games. In doing so, he led the Wildcats to their fourth league title in their final year in the MAC, and for the second year in a row, he was named first-team All-MAC.
“His entire junior season we were a very good team,” Collins said. “The whole season he made saves that were game-winning. Just game after game that season he was outstanding. He was on the field all the time and just a massive presence every game. I was just able to look him in the eye and I knew that he was going to grow up to be a goalkeeper. … He was one of the best goalkeepers in the county for sure.”
He capped his collegiate career with six more shutouts in 2006, bringing his career to a UK-record tying 22. Playing in Conference USA for the first time, Gruenebaum racked in one last conference honor with a first-team All-Conference USA selection. Despite the hype that surrounded Gruenebaum, he met and exceeded nearly every expectation as the final defender of the Wildcat defense. He shattered a few records in the process. Gruenebaum finished his stellar career for Kentucky with a school-record 264 saves and the sixth-best all-time goals against average (0.97).
"When coach Collins recruited me to come to UK the whole thing was that they told me they would put me in a situation to go play professionally,” Gruenebaum said. “Playing for UK was on the best experiences I ever had. Playing soccer, the school and the friends I made will be something I will never forget or would ever trade for another school. We played the most competitive teams in the nation and we competed in every game. It really prepared for the next level. We had a blue-collar mentality and we didn't take anything for granted. Coach Collins was very adamant about teaching this to the guys. I think UK was a launching pad for my professional career. It was the message that was conveyed to me when I came here and it came true."
Gruenebaum was selected No. 3 overall by the Columbus Crew in the first round of the 2006 MLS Supplemental Draft, becoming the first Kentucky MLS draftee in the history of the program. Gruenebaum made an immediate impact in his inaugural season, appearing in three matches overall, including a pair of starts to end the season for the Crew.
Gruenebaum carried the late-season momentum into the 2007 season, starting all 10 games in which he appeared. The Wildcat great was impenetrable in the first two matches, blanking back-to-back opponents to start the year. He finished the season with a 1.50 goals against average.
Injuries that started in the 2007 season continued to plague Gruenebaum this season and limited him to just one game. But Gruenebaum was an integral part of the Crew’s dominating 2008 run that concluded with the MLS championship.
"Over the last four and half months of the season this past year I was playing with something torn in my shoulder,” Gruenebaum said. “I actually got surgery on it this past Thursday. The surgery went well it wasn't a major surgery, but it is good to get my full range of motion back. They went in there and cleaned my shoulder up. I am excited about the pain being gone and getting healed up so I get back out and be ready to play again. I struggled with it all year but it was worth it to play with the pain and win a championship."
Gruenebaum called the championship-winning experience incredible.
“The experience has been amazing to come in my third year and win the whole MLS Cup,” Gruenebaum said. “It is one those things that I am still taking in, knowing that things like this rarely happen. A lot of young guys think it will happen again but it is a rare thing."