Author’s Note: Special thanks to Andy Knauff for contributing in sharing this story and the family photos we’ve included
On a brisk Friday evening in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Mars boys soccer team made history. Head coach Chris Knauff led the Fightin’ Planets to an undefeated season (21-0) and the program’s first state championship, topping Northern York 2-1.
No one will enjoy the moment quite like the players, who have a story to tell their grandkids, but for Chris Knauff and his family, this win was a realization of two generations’ worth of effort.
The Mars Area School District has had a varsity soccer team for 28 years. There has been a Knauff on the team, as a player or coach, for 24 of those years.
Chris played at Mars from 1995 to 1998. Ben Knauff from 2000 to 2003 and Andy Knauff from 2005 to 2008. Combining his playing and coaching career, the elder of his siblings, Chris alone has contributed 18 years to the program.
It’s pretty easy to tell from Chris, Ben and Andy’s involvement in the game, that soccer is a way of life for the Knauff family. When looking at the origins and early growth of soccer in the Mars community, the Knauff family name has been synonymous with the beautiful game’s rise in the lower Butler County community which has also grown astronomically during this same time.
Chris, Ben and Andy’s father, Dave Knauff has been a stalwart in the Mars soccer community for nearly 35 years, and his involvement extends to the very roots of Mars soccer and the local club’s formation in 1985.
Even before the Mars Area Soccer Club found its now familiar and permanent home along Route 228, the club bounced from park-to-park with Dave serving in a variety of roles from year-to-year: club president, vice president, travel coordinator, referee assigner and even construction worker helping to build the club’s concessions stand and equipment shed, all while coaching and officiating.
Chris was part of the first class of young players that came through Mars program.
Dave began coaching his eldest son through the different age groups of the Mars Area Soccer Club: U8s, 10s, 12s, 14s, 16s, and as his middle and youngest sons came of age, he began coaching their teams too.
Before long, the Knauff’s were the quintessential ‘soccer family,’ attending some form of practice four nights a week, with games on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Every night, at the dinner table conversation, it would inevitably turn to this week’s formation, how the practices were going, or player development,” Andy Knauff said. “Our poor mother.”
As Chris came of age, he found success on the field.
His youth teams, coached by Dave, won the PA West Open multiple times. The eldest Knauff brother’s Strikers and North Stars club travel teams challenged for State Cups and at the high school level, Chris was a four-year starter at Mars.
In his senior year, he guided the blossoming program to its first-ever playoff appearance. Chris was one of the first Mars players to find success at the college level, going on to play four years at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
After pursuing a masters degree in education, and in the hunt for a teaching position, and as if by destiny, one opened up at Mars.
In addition, Chris jumped at the opportunity to assist his alma mater with then-boys coach Blair Gerlach through the 2006 season.
The following year, Gerlach moved to the girls program (where he also established a run of unparalleled success, topped off by back-to-back PIAA Championships for the Mars Girls (in 2019 and 2020), allowing Knauff to step in to guide the boys program.
Just like that, Knauff steered a new generation of Mars boys soccer forward.
“After years of coaching us in the backyard, Chris was a natural” Ben Knauff added.
Assisted by a surge of talented players, Chris enjoyed immediate success, having the program’s best performing seasons in 2007, 2008, and 2009, with two WPIAL titles and a first-ever PIAA state championship game appearance in 2007.
The boys program continued to dominate in WPIAL Class 2A and then WPIAL Class 3A boys soccer over the next decade, winning 10 section titles his 14 seasons at the helm, with a combined record of 239-52-14 and a staggering sectional record of 156-13-11.
The boys team made the playoffs every year under his leadership and made it to the WPIAL district finals seven times.
“Chris is understated at times and overly humble,” Ben explained. “He is quick to deflect responsibility for the success to the surge of nearby travel clubs, improved facilities, the sport’s emerging popularity, and Mars’ rapidly changing socio economic landscape.”
Chris Knauff, much like his father before him, has put the same level of blood, sweat and tears into the game and community he loves.
“What this (deflecting responsibility) ignores is the consistency, time and passion he’s put into the program. Summer training programs, camp offerings, alumni involvement, and film analysis are all routine.”
When asked recently in an interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now about the incredible growth of soccer in the Mars community and surrounding upper Northern Pittsburgh-area suburbs that have filtered into Butler County, a smile immediately came to Chris Knauff.
“I grew up here. I played on those fields. Those were my fields,” Chris said. “It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why the program’s have been so successful. We try to keep the ball rolling. The players see what the players did before them and the success they have. And they always want to one-up. And there’s a healthy competition, even between the boys side and the girls side, and they want to match their level of success. We just feed off each other and it continues to build.”
Still very much a part of the Mars soccer family, Dave Knauff has filmed nearly every game for the past 20 years. After each game he speaks with Chris, providing analysis, player reviews, and sharing in the excitement – the same way he would have when his protégé was 12.
In addition, what made Mars win especially sweeter in Hershey on Friday night was they played immediately after Blair Gerlach’s girls team won their second consecutive title. With the girls cheering them on, the boys fought back from a 1-0 deficit at the half to pull ahead with two goals midway through the second half to beat Northern York.
“We were so happy for them, but it was nice that we were able to match them and we can both celebrate,” Chris added.
Chris, now a father in his own right, has a four-year old daughter who is starting her own soccer adventure.
A day may come when Chris has to make the bittersweet decision to walk away from the high school team to focus on her teams and soccer development.
For now, he can bask in the warm glow of his team’s accomplishment
“Whenever the inevitable passing of the torch occurs, the Mars soccer community should appreciate how far they’ve come and those who helped it get there,” Andy Knauff stated.
“Chris’ work is a culmination of a lifetime of effort and a point of family pride. Hershey’s chocolate may be sweet, but nothing as sweet as this win.”