From the moment they stepped onto campus, you could sense the Class of 2020 was special.
Across all sports, phenoms have emerged. Champions crowned. Dynasties begun. Legacies established. About 15-20 years from now, several members of this class will be enshrined in the Saint Ignatius Athletic Hall of Fame.
But perhaps no sport saw a larger influx of talented players than the Saint Ignatius soccer program.
Sunday's state championship game is the culmination of four years of growth for this incredible group of 15 Saint Ignatius soccer players.
From the start, the soccer coaching staff saw the talent of this class. Everett Shorey and Matthew McLaughlin made varsity as freshmen, tasting success with the program's eighth state championship and third in a row.
In 2017, a whopping 14 sophomores made varsity. With just two seniors on the team, the sophomores earned plenty of playing team, forming the heart and soul of the group. Growing pains did happen, including a 4-game stretch with 2 losses and 2 ties.
But the Wildcats figured it out down the stretch. The Cats tore off seven straight wins, overcoming strong teams in a great postseason run, including a very good University School team with a 1-0 overtime win.
Then the Medina Bees dealt the Wildcats a devastating 2-0 loss. Peter Van Euwen suffered an injury and departed the game, and an own goal and tough loss ensued.
In 2018, the Wildcats added Danny Radigan to the varsity squad, upping the tally to 15 members of the class of 2020. Playing a very tough schedule, the Soccer Cats did quite well. The only blemish was a 3-1 loss to St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, but the trip to New York City was still a blast.
The Wildcats cruised through most of the postseason, outscoring opponents 28-2 from the Sectional Final to the Regional Final. But the Bees again dropped the Wildcats in heartbreaking fashion, this time in overtime.
Entering the 2019 season, the Soccer Cats knew that this season was it. The team adopted the slogan, "I am that man," from the Navy Seals. The Wildcats embarked on the toughest schedule in program history.
Against the toughest teams from the state and the country, the Wildcats passed every test. The No. 1 team in the country, St. Benedict's Prep barely survived the Wildcats with a 2-2. In a trip to Illinois, the Wildcats bested then-No. 1 Peoria Notre Dame in convincing fashion, 2-0.
The Wildcats entered the postseason with an 18-0-2 record, with 12 wins by 2 goals or more. In the playoffs, the Wildcats have showed no mercy in besting the top teams from across the state. In six games, the Wildcats have won by a combined score of 33-2. The men of Mike McLaughlin '85 have won every playoff game by 3 goals or more.
Along the way, the time has flown by. The Wildcats have a special collection of young men, a tightknit group of brothers. The 2019 Cats have bonded off the field, too, becoming a family. Amongst parents, too, the bonds of friendship and fellowship have grown strong.
Sunday is the culmination of four years of hard work and countless hours together for these 15 Saint Ignatius seniors. To play in a state championship game is thrilling, and these men can't wait to battle Olentangy Liberty.
But in a way, it is a little sad. You wish that these 15 young men could continue to play together for longer. All of them are so talented, and such great young men.
Yet, only 80 minutes remain. The Wildcats aim to make the most of each of those 80 minutes together.
"It's been an incredible four years for these seniors, and what a way to bring it to a close," said McLaughlin. "They have 80 minutes left of their Saint Ignatius soccer career. It's such a finite number. I think with such confidence of what we've accomplished all year. Clearly, we've played the most difficult schedule that any Saint Ignatius [soccer] team has ever played. We sit undefeated with 80 minutes to go."
These 15 seniors, along with the talented underclassmen, want to leave their mark in the hallowed halls of Wildcat High. The Wildcats want nothing less than a ninth state championship trophy and a ninth gold banner on the wall.
Coach McLaughlin has established a tradition of excellence with the Saint Ignatius soccer program during his time as head coach. The Wildcats have an OHSAA-best 8 state titles, along with 4 national crowns. These 2019 Wildcats want to add their own stamp on history.
Standing in the way is Olentangy Liberty.
The Patriots have their own tradition in Columbus. Olentangy Liberty has reached the State Tournament five times, including in 2018. The Patriots have won one state title (2012) and finished as the runners-up twice (2011 and 2014).
The Patriots and Wildcats have sparred in the regular season in the past few seasons. This year, Olentangy Liberty traveled to Cleveland, falling in a physical game to the Wildcats, 1-0.
"We're playing against a team we know and played 3-4 weeks ago. They're really good," said Coach McLaughlin "But I'm so proud of these men, I'm confident and excited for Sunday night. These boys have been ready for every moment that's come upon them this season. This Sunday will be no different."
The grudge match should be a good one. The Patriots have certainly improved since the last contest. But on the flipside, Mapfre Stadium is about 10 yards wider than Wasmer Field, which benefits the Wildcats.
"The game will go back and forth. There will be momentum shifts in this game. We gotta get the ball down," said the Wildcats' Hall of Famer coach. "Control the ball, control the game. It's a big field, game-changingly big. We need to adjust and be aware of closing down spaces defensively and opening things up offensively. We have a great goalkeeper and our defense has been tremendous. Our offense is clicking. Those are the keys."
Whatever the result, the 2019 Wildcats have plenty of reasons to be proud. They have done great things this season. The 15 seniors leave behind a legacy of hard work, accountability, and brotherhood. They've set the standard for the upcoming classes.
McLaughlin will be clear in that message with his pregame talk to the team.
"You're wearing a shirt with a Saint Ignatius crest on it. That means a ton. To represent the shirt, to play Saint Ignatius soccer, to be who we are. They know what needs to be done in order for us to be our best. Put everything else aside and understand that this is a soccer game, on a grass field, with a round ball. Do what you do, and you'll be okay."