Soccer isn't the first sport most people think of when you bring up athletics in St. James.
While so many kids in town start by picking up a basketball, recent St. James grad Quinn Paulus started with soccer. She started by kicking around the ball at recess at her small private school in Cuba, before using soccer to make friends after moving to St. James.
"I started trying to make friends here and one of my friends said 'hey, you should play soccer with me in the youth league in St. James," said Paulus. "I was actually playing soccer before basketball, which is kind of weird when you live in St. James."
Paulus' love for soccer has only grown since then. As she got older, the Lady Tiger midfielder had to decide how seriously she wanted to take the sport. She came to the decision that she wanted to focus on it more and that led to club soccer. First Paulus hopped over to Rolla to play with the Lady Knights. She then traveled to St. Louis to play on teams, before spending the final few years of high school playing club in Springfield.
"I was starting to get to the age where they don't really do soccer anymore in St. James," said Paulus with a laugh. "I think going into eighth grade, my dad was like 'well, do you want to play in college?' Because at that point it was like, I couldn't play in college, I wasn't good enough. He said 'you have to make a decision, you don't understand how the world works, you need to get better and you need to be focused on this.
"Then freshman year, I was like yes, I want to play in college and I started doing everything that I could to get there," said Paulus.
While Paulus was taking soccer more seriously in high school, she had two very different experiences. On one side, Paulus was playing extremely competitive club soccer with a ton of experienced players. On the other end, she was spending her spring season playing for the Lady Tigers. High school soccer at St. James has had it's peaks and valleys and Paulus' freshman season was firmly in one of those valleys. When Paulus was in eighth grade, St. James went winless. Her freshman year, they won three games. They improved to 8-13 her sophomore year. Seeing such wildly different soccer on her different teams was an odd experience for the St. James midfielder.
"It was definitely a different relationship between them. Soccer in St. Louis and Springfield was more competitive, more team oriented. We worked it up the field, because people really new the principles well," said Paulus. "It was also kind of weird because I didn't see my teammates much on those St. Louis and Springfield teams, so I wasn't as close to them as I was here.
"For St. James, I had to take more of a leadership role and try to teach them and lead by example. I had to try to distribute and keep it as a team. I was trying to get it to other people and help them learn."
Other than her role on the team, Paulus had to get used to finding wildly different levels of success early on. She just tried to focus on playing her best, rather than giving all of her attention to the scoreboard.
"I remember freshman year, I would do club in the fall, so I'd only played club up until high school soccer, so we'd get like 10-0'd and I was just shocked," said Paulus. "It kinda hit me hard freshman year, but you learn how to play through it. I didn't think about it, I just played my best."
Paulus takes a lot of pride in helping her teammates improve in the sport and the results paid off. As a junior, St. James was above .500 for the first time since 2011. As a senior, Paulus led the Lady Tigers to a 10-7 record and a trip to the District Championship game. Paulus proved to be the goal-scorer they needed with a staggering 41 goals, but she also shared the ball a ton, dishing out a team-high 21 assists. Paulus isn't one to worry about stats, she just took pride in how much her team improved in the last four years.
"I'm not really a stats person, I'm more of a 'try your best' and that's kind of my motto. I always liked the passing part of the game, that's always been my job, my role through the years. I play midfield, so I'm focused on passing," said Paulus. "It's made me happy (to see my teammates improve) because they obviously have a love for the game because they keep on doing it even though the road wasn't easy. To see them have success in something that I love is inspiring and kinda keeps you going."
This senior year was special for Paulus because it was a culmination of seeing all the improvement she and her teammates have made. They were able to put an exclamation point on an already excellent season by winning their District opener over Osage 5-2. While their run ended with a 4-1 loss to Southern Boone in the title game, it was an amazing experience for Paulus and her teammates.
"I was nervous. I usually don't get nervous for anything, but I was like oh my goodness, we could actually do something this year, we have a chance. As soon as you get into the game, you get going and things opened up for us," said the Lady Tiger of their District win. "I think we could've even won the championship, we had some pretty good shots. Those goals early kind of broke our backs, but we had it on their side most of the time. It was kind of unlucky how it ended up, but I was proud of how we did and how our team grew."
As the team improved, Paulus has also seen soccer become a little bit more popular in St. James. She's glad to see the soccer bug bite a few more people in town.
"Soccer is really big pretty much everywhere else in the world except St. James, so I couldn't comprehend why no one likes it. It's so much fun, it brings people together, but no one was having it my freshman year. I was like 'what's wrong with you guys? It's great!,'" said Paulus. "To now, where people are like 'I do kinda like this' and I'm like 'I told you, it's fun.'"
Paulus' soccer run in St. James may have ended, but she still has a lot of soccer in her future. Paulus will play soccer at Oxford College of Emory, which is located in Oxford, Georgia just outside of Atlanta. Paulus has had a ton of challenges thrown her way throughout her soccer career and she's excited to see the new ones that come traveling across the country to play the sport she loves at the next level.
"I'm excited, because I just wanna reach out and meet new people and see what else the world has to offer other than St. James, Missouri. I know there's a lot out there," said Paulus I'm excited to meet people with similar interests, but also who are different culturally. I just want to learn new things.
"As far as small fish big pond, I think I'll still be okay. Club soccer has almost prepared me for the soccer aspect of it, because there I'm like most of the other kids on the field. I think there will be struggles, like physically, they'll probably be bigger than me, but I think I'll do well," Paulus continued "I like competition and I like a challenge. You never get bored because you're always working. I like that part of it. I like challenges academically and on the field, so that part will be good for me, probably make me even better than I already am because I don't like staying where I'm at."