Expectations are high for the 2019 Saint Ignatius soccer program, but the goal is simple.
Play a full 80-minute game.
As longtime head coach Mike McLaughlin '85 sees it, everything will fall into place from there.
The Wildcats have plenty of challenges ahead this season. The squad enters the year as the No. 1 team in the country, as ranked by Top Drawer Soccer, so every opponent will give the Wildcats its best. And the foes are fearsome, from reigning national champs St. Benedict's Prep (NJ) to Kentucky state champs Louisville St. Xavier to top in-state teams. Playoff defeats in past seasons also linger in the rearview mirror.
To combat all of the challenges, McLaughlin decided to call upon the Navy Seals for the team's theme for 2019.
The motto for the season is "I am that man," with the three pillars: Team, Believing, and Fighting.
"Our theme comes from the Navy Seal creed. Within it, there is a line in there, 'I am that man.' Basically, why they're part of the Saint Ignatius soccer program is to be a better man," McLaughlin explained. "Every day, they need to live up to a standard. We want them to be that man their teammates can count on to show up every day and be committed. We want them to always be thinking, 'I am that man.'
"With that, there are three pillars we're leaning on: Team, Believing, and Fighting," McLaughlin continued. "Everything will revolve around those three things. We need to get it done as a team. We need to believe because we'll have challenges and ups and downs. And we have to come to fight every day."
A strong leadership group is in place this season to deliver the message to the team. Returning seniors Matthew McLaughlin, Peter Van Euwen, Austin Zeleznik, Kyle Folds. All are strong leaders, and three of the four are Division I commits.
In all, the Wildcats have a special group of 15 seniors. Besides the four captains, Daniel Radigan, Gavan Richards, Danny Kalic, Nick Russo, Joe Katic, Ian Sugar, Everett Shorey, Ryan Roberts, Ryan Notarianni, Nolan Bartolone, and Theo Kudlo compose the group. This is a special set of young men.
"We have 15 seniors – it's pretty unique and very exciting," Coach McLaughlin said. "You go as far as your seniors take you. We have a group of guys who are trying to do something special."
A number of newcomers also dot the squad. Liam Sowell, Marko Rimac, DeVar Anderson, Aidan Kernell, and Luciano Pechota are some of the new Wildcats. A number of players will also be swing players between JV A and varsity this year, too.
Starting with goalkeeper and looking out, the Wildcats have one of the best netminders in the land. Peter Van Euwen returns for this third season in net for the blue and gold. An excellent athlete with a nose for the ball, Van Euwen combines a strong mental approach with wonderful physical gifts.
The Ohio State commit started 18 games last season, playing 1,332 minutes in net. He notched 38 saves and 7 shutouts, allowing just 12 goals. The Wildcats enjoyed a 15-2-1 record with him in net last year, and a 6-2-1 mark in 2017.
The defense in front of him is stellar. An anchor piece is Danny Kalic, a senior who started 20 games and played 1,549 minutes. Kalic is a stalwart defender who may also move up to midfielder over the course of the game. Nolan Bartolone is a similarly excellent defender who is good with the ball at his feet. The rising senior turned away a myriad of chances last year and also became involved in the offense occasionally with 2 goals and 2 assists.
Ryan Notarianni is another name to watch for. Known by his teammates as "Noter," he'll be a key cog this season. Theo Kudlo is a lockdown defender who enjoyed a great 2018 campaign. If you're a talented opponent playing the Wildcats this season, you'll see plenty of Theo. In 21 games, Kudlo played 1,179 minutes, mostly on defense, but he also snuck up for 2 goals and 7 assists.
Austin Zeleznik will be a leader in the backline. A diligent student in the classroom, Zeleznik's smarts translate to the field with strong play. He tallied 4 goals and 8 assists, showing off skills wherever he played on the field.
The midfielder spot will be another critical strength for the Wildcats. The team has no lack of players who can run with the best, pass around and through you, and place the ball in the back of the net.
The conversation starts with Matthew McLaughlin and Kyle Folds. The two Allstate Cup All-Americans will be playing Division I soccer in 2020 at Indiana and Notre Dame. These two players have tons of talent.
Matthew led the team in scoring last season with 16 goals and 17 assists, a balanced showing of his skill. For his career, McLaughlin has 36 goals and 33 assists, both numbers he'll look to increase this year. Folds is another uber-skilled player who's deadly with the ball on his boot. The senior tallied 9 goals and 2 assists last season, playing 1,476 minutes at several spots. A plug-and-play star, Folds will be fun to watch this season.
Joe Katic and Ian Sugar will also figure into the mix heavily at midfield. The two unheralded seniors have the marvelous ability and can sneak around and past you if you're not paying attention. Both are smart passes with a nose for being in the right spot at the right time. Other seniors such as Gavan Richards will play plenty this season and make a difference.
The Wildcats will have a rotating bunch at forward. Midfielders will often come forward to help with offense, but a number of players will man the fort near opposing nets, primarily Everett Shorey.
The returning senior is back and nearly healthy. An extremely talented scorer, Shorey could make a huge difference for the Wildcats this season. During the preseason, Shorey has 8 goals in 3 games, including two hat tricks, all while playing just 30 minutes a game with a brace on.
"I'm really excited about what Everett Shorey has done in the preseason. He can change games," McLaughlin said. "He played as a freshman and wasn't healthy sophomore and junior year. But he's really battled and I'm excited that he's healthy. He will change our team."
Ryan Roberts is another important playmaker for the Wildcats. As a junior, he found the back of the net on 7 goals and added 2 assists. A shifty player, Roberts is tough for other teams to deal with. Another savvy player is Marko Rimac, an incoming junior. Rimac has also played well in the preseason, showcasing his athleticism and ball skills. Another young player to watch out for is Luciano Pechota, the lone sophomore on the team. Pechota will be a major playmaker and part of the team over the next few seasons.
Looking at the strategy as a whole, McLaughlin is looking forward to mixing things up often. His team's formation will depend on the opponent and size of the field, though the coaching staff has some set ideas about the pattern the team will play.
The most important thing, whatever the strategy, is playing a complete game.
"The goal is for us to play 80-minute games, and for us to play at our best for 80 minutes. We need to get closer and closer to that point every time we play," McLaughlin said. "They're high school kids and even professionals don't live up to their highest standard of being their best in every second of every game. But if we can move towards playing 80 minutes at our best as a team, then everything else takes care of itself."
Across the country, the Wildcats have drawn plenty of high rankings. Top Drawer Soccer has Saint Ignatius at No. 1, while United Soccer Coaches and USA TODAY High School Sports have the Cats at No. 2. But preseason rankings don't matter to this bunch.
"We start the season ranked pretty highly. It's a nice thing, every kid wants to be recognized," McLaughlin said. "But ultimately, it's where you finish that matters, not where you start. We've been in this position before – it only increases the size of the bullseye on our back. You think about that for five seconds and then you move on, get on with life, and play. Any ranking isn't changing who they are – they know what's ahead of them. They have to come ready to fight."
That's very true – the Wildcats will need to spring out of the gates with authority. The schedule is not an easy one.
The Soccer Cats start out with road games at Avon Lake and Twinsburg on August 16 and August 20 before hosting the Jesuit Cup. The Wildcats will face Toledo St. John's Jesuit on Saturday, August 24 at noon, and St. Xavier and Walsh Jesuit will face off afterward. The four teams will then celebrate Mass in St. Mary's Chapel at 4:30 pm before Wildcats' Roar. The Wildcats will then play on Sunday against either St. Xavier at 10 am or Walsh Jesuit at 12 pm, depending on the results.
After facing Solon on August 29, the Wildcats will head south to Columbus on September 7 to face Louisville St. Xavier, the reigning Kentucky state champs. St. Edward pays a visit to Wasmer Field on September 11 before the Wildcats head to Copley three days later.
The premier matchup on the schedule will be on Friday, September 20 at Cleveland State's Krenzler Field. St. Benedict's Prep (NJ) will come to town for a battle between the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, a rematch of last season's showdown. Whatever the result, the Wildcats will host Columbus St. Charles the following day for Camper Appreciation Day.
The Wildcats have road contests at University School and Toledo St. Francis on September 24 and 28 before the team's big road trip the following weekend. The Soccer Cats will head to Chicago to face nationally-ranked Peoria Notre Dame on October 4 and Saint Ignatius Prep on October 5.
The season wraps up with home games vs. Normandy and Olentangy Liberty on October 9 and 12.
All in all, it's a stacked schedule for the blue and gold.
Helping to coach the Wildcats through the grind will be two familiar faces – Yianni Sarris '11 and Phil Buzzelli '11. Sarris and Buzzelli will be joining Mike McLaughlin's coaching staff this year after assisting in the early stages of last season.
Sarris played a starring role in the Wildcats' 2010 national and state championship run. The outstanding forward tallied 18 goals to earn Plain Dealer boys soccer Player of the Year honors. Sarris went on to play Florida Gulf Coast University before transferring to The Ohio State University and earning his bachelor's while starring for the Buckeyes.
After taking a year off of school and working a pair of jobs, Sarris attended Charleston School of Law. Sarris graduated and recently took the bar exam. While waiting for the results and then the paperwork to transfer, Sarris is looking for a job in law. In the meantime, Sarris is pursuing other business adventures.
Buzzelli also played a significant role in the Wildcats' 2010 title run. The midfielder helped to achieve the team's lofty goals with an undefeated season.
After graduating, Buzzelli attended Ohio University, obtaining a degree in health and sciences. Buzzelli then acquired a master's degree in urban secondary teaching from Cleveland State University. Buzzelli is now a teacher at Saint Martin de Porres High School, a Cristo Rey school on the east side of Cleveland. Before joining the Wildcats' coaching staff, Buzzelli spent three seasons as an assistant coach at Padua Franciscan.
Both Sarris and Buzzelli are excited to be back at Wildcat High.
"We're excited to be back at Saint Ignatius. We want to give back to the school for all of the opportunities and chances it gave us as adults. It's all about the Magis," Sarris and Buzzelli said. "Giving back and helping Coach Mike who helped us so much was always something we wanted to do. That's why we're back. Good coaches change games. Great coaches change lives."
McLaughlin is thrilled to have Sarris and Buzzelli back in the program, too.
"I think it's really important that the players have a connection to some of our recent alumni," said the 25-year veteran coach. "Yianni is one of the finest players to ever play here. He connects well with the kids, and that's an important part of our program for the last 20 years – having alumni come back to work with the players. Connecting with the players soccer-wise and socially helps the kids know about the tradition of the program."
Also aiding the program will be two managers – Julio Paez and Joey Enright. Julio returns for his senior season after serving alongside Kevin Cook '19 last year. Enright, also a senior, begins his first year as a soccer manager. Enright played volleyball for the Wildcats in the spring.
Looking at the group as a whole, the Saint Ignatius soccer program is filled with great young men, coaches, and managers. The 2019 season could be an unforgettable one.