No high school team is immune from first-game jitters, not even the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
But the Wildcats overcame early nerves to score two goals in the second half, sliding past Avon Lake, 2-1, on a beautiful Friday evening near the lakeshore.
The win sets the Soccer Cats at 1-0 in a very young season.
With high expectations and rankings comes plenty of pressure. One bad game or upset can spell the end of the Wildcats' hopes to bring home the program's fifth national championship. You always have to play your best game, because opponents will always bring their best against the No. 1 team in the nation.
Avon Lake certainly did, playing smart soccer in a well-played first half.
"As much as they're good soccer players and they've all played at high levels, there's a pressure they feel when they put the Saint Ignatius jersey on," said Head Coach Mike McLaughlin '85. "There is an excitement and an anxiety to get out there and perform, since there's a bullseye on their back. If this was the last game of the season and this is how we played, I would be a little bit worried. But it's the first night."
The Wildcats enjoyed the majority of the possession and a 4-2 advantage in shots in the opening period. Kyle Folds started off the game with a shot in the opening minutes, but it flew directly into the stomach of the Shoreman keeper. A couple of offsides calls also thwarted promising chances.
Avon Lake applied some pressure at times, aided by a penalty just outside of the box midway through the stanza. But good work by the Wildcats on defense, led by Nolan Bartolone, kept Avon Lake away from netminder Peter Van Euwen.
The Wildcats and Shoremen went into the break deadlocked at 0-0. Saint Ignatius had the ball more frequently and looked more dangerous on offense, but soccer can be a crazy game. The Wildcats needed a man to step into the limelight.
On Friday, Marko Rimac was that man.
Just six minutes into the second half, Rimac found an opening. The junior, playing in his first varsity game, took a pass from Folds down the nearside wing. The Shoremen left Rimac with just one defender, who Rimac beat with a nice move. The junior sent it top shelf, and it deflected off the keeper's hand and into the back of the net for the Wildcats' first goal of the season.
"I was a little nervous, I didn't know what to expect," Rimac said. "But it was great, I had two goals and we won."
Indeed, just eight minutes later, Rimac worked his magic again. A Wildcats' shot bounded towards the net but was stopped by an Avon Lake defender, who attempted to deflect it away. But the ball found the foot of Rimac, who right-footed it past the goalie into the left side of the net.
Rimac's shot was an absolute blast, freezing the keeper in style.
"That's the fun part about coaching soccer. To see guys in their first minutes step up and deliver," said Coach McLaughlin. "It was great. He showed it last year [on JV A], and now he's got his time and his chance. I was really happy with him. Those were two really good goals. Besides the goals, he was making things happen on the field."
Near the halfway point of the second stanza, a miscommunication proved to be costly.
A ball bounced to the Saint Ignatius backline seemingly harmlessly. But a miscommunication led to the ball bouncing off the head of a Wildcat and into the back of the net. The own goal granted Avon Lake new life, trailing by just one marker.
The Wildcats could have folded, but instead grew stronger. Saint Ignatius dominated possession time, rarely allowing Avon Lake to have time with the ball on offense. McLaughlin's men pressured the Shoremen, showcasing a smart and skilled game. With about 15 minutes left, the Wildcats saw three corner kicks in the span of a couple minutes, hemming Avon Lake into its own zone. The Cats could not convert, but it kept the ball away from the trailing team.
In the final minutes, the Wildcats pressured the Shoremen even more, looking for one more goal. But it was not to be, as Avon Lake deflected each chance. Overall in the second half, the Wildcats outshot the Shoremen, 9-0.
The Wildcats will certainly remember this experience. Fortunately the Soccer Cats emerged with a 2-1 win to advance to 1-0 on the year, but this will be a game to learn from.
"We still have things to sort out. A lot of it is communication," McLaughlin said. "We'll always dominate the ball, but we need to make sure we don't give teams looks at our goal. We gave them a few too many looks, but that's what high school teams will do. They'll throw balls into the box and make it difficult for us to deal with. They did, and we struggled with it at times. That's good, because playing scared is a good teacher, because it makes you play on your toes. We weren't scared going into the game, we were too casual."
The Wildcats will have Saturday and Sunday off to rest before returning to practice on Monday. The team's next game is on Tuesday vs. Twinsburg in a 7 pm road matchup.
JV A Cats start with a big win
The Wildcats accomplished the sweep on Friday, as the JV A Cats rolled past Avon Lake, 6-0. The JV Cats will also play Twinsburg on Tuesday, at 5 pm.