The stage is set for another primetime premier matchup between two of the top teams in the country.
The Saint Ignatius varsity soccer team remained undefeated with a gritty 1-0 win over Toledo St. Francis on Saturday. The Wildcats now own an 11-0-2 mark on the season.
A two-game road swing lies ahead for the Wildcats. In the first contest, No. 1 Peoria Notre Dame will host No. 3 Saint Ignatius on Friday night. On the backend of the trip is a Saturday afternoon game against St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago.
But first, let's talk about the Wildcats' physical win over a senior-laden Knights squad on Saturday.
All three Wildcats' teams traveled to Toledo on Saturday. Leading up to the varsity game, the JV B Cats captured a 6-0 win to advance to 11-0 on the year, and the JV A Cats earned a 7-0 conquest to up their record to 11-0-1 this season.
From the start of the varsity contest, the Wildcats and Knights battled fiercely. Saint Ignatius enjoyed possession for most of the half, and tallied the majority of the chances. However, the Wildcats could not find the back of the net despite some promising chances.
"We had chances early in the game. If we put those chances away, the complexion of the game is a lot different," said Head Coach Mike McLaughlin '85. "Scoring goals is hard to do. But we're continuing to work. It's important to create chances and don't give the other team chances."
So, the Knights felt pretty good heading into halftime tied at nil-nil against the No. 3 team in the country, according to Top Drawer Soccer.
Early in the second half, the Wildcats made the decisive play of the game. The Wildcats sent a through ball ahead to Everett Shorey. The senior took care of the rest, continuing a great senior campaign.
"It was a 50/50 between Everett and their center back, and Everett just ran through it," said Coach Mike. "The defender didn't judge it properly, and Everett won the ball and pushed past him down the middle on the right side. It was a difficult angle and a hard shot from the right. It went to the back post and in."
After Shorey's right-footed goal, the game only got more intense. The Wildcats searched for an insurance goal to put the game away. The Knights fought tooth and nail to knot the game at one, which would be a huge result for a team that entered with a 3-6-3 record.
As the game continued, the physicality became more and more apparent.
"The game didn't start out too physical. Anytime a team starts out close with us, the longer it stays close, the more they're going to fight to keep it close," McLaughlin said. "The longer the game went on, the ref had a hard time controlling things, unfortunately. When a ref doesn't control things, players will take advantage of that. Unfortunately, the game got dangerously physical. But I was proud of our guys."
In the final minute, the Knights had a dangerous opportunity to score off a setpiece.
But in a show of athleticism, goalkeeper Peter Van Euwen made an acrobatic play to keep his sheet clean for the Wildcats' sixth shutout of the year.
"Peter Van Euwen made a huge save in the last minute of the game. It changed the game. They had a chance to put it in, and he made a great save," McLaughlin said. "Their most dangerous chances came from set-pieces – corner kicks and long throw-ins. Those are hard to deal with. We had several more chances in the second half, and fortunately, Everett put it in the back of the net."
The 1-0 win marked the first victory of that score for the Wildcats since November 4, 2017 – an incredible game ended by Bryce Horton on a beautiful goal in overtime.
It's these type of gritty games that the Wildcats need to win in the playoffs.
"I keep trying to create opportunities for them to feel what it's going to be like in the playoffs. Dealing with the pressure, if a referee isn't doing his job, and a physical, senior-laden type team like St. Francis," McLaughlin said. "This game was good. We struggled with one-goal games last year, but this year we've won two one-goal games. You need to have the grind-out, fight-it-out games to create an identity for your team."
Moving forward, all of the attention turns to defeating a very talented Peoria Notre Dame team.
This game could have national title implications for both teams.
"They have a core group of players who have done well in Illinois the last couple of years. They're like us, a senior-laden team," said Coach McLaughlin. "They have a really strong striker up top, a strong center-mid, a really strong right-winger, a couple of strong center backs, and a good goalkeeper. They're the top team in the country according to one poll. It's a unique program that's enjoyed a lot of success."
The atmosphere in Peoria will also be first-class on Friday at 7 pm.
"They have a wonderful soccer-only grass stadium, they'll have bagpipers to walk us out, and they're bringing in extra bleachers for the game because they're expecting a crowd of over 2,000 fans," said McLaughlin. "They've got a lot planned for the night. They're undefeated an untied, and they've played plenty of solid teams from Illinois. How amazing is it that we get to play two No. 1 teams in the country in one season?"
The trip also includes Saturday's match vs. the Wolfpack of St. Ignatius in Chicago. Following that contest, the Wildcats will take a tour of Chicago and enjoy a night in the Windy City.
The fun weekend is part of the incredible Saint Ignatius soccer experience that McLaughlin tries to give each player. In years past, the Wildcats have ventured to St. Louis, New York City, Denver, and Jamaica. This year's trip to Chicago is another great experience for the Soccer Cats.
"I love creating great opportunities and experiences for our players. That's what it's all about."