The Saint Ignatius soccer program established itself as a dominant force to be reckoned with on a national stage during the 2010s.
The Wildcats won 6 OHSAA State Championships from 2010-19, including three in a row, an unmatched feat in Division I Ohio high school soccer. In the process, the Soccer Cats captured 4 national crowns during that span. The Wildcats have the most soccer state titles in OHSAA history, and the second-most national titles.
But that's all in the past. The 2020s are ready to begin, and the Wildcats have their leaders for the first year of the new decade.
Nic Barzacchini, Niko Basic, Marko Rimac, and Liam Sowell are the Wildcats' captains for the 2020 season.
Each of the rising seniors played on the varsity level in 2019, helping the Wildcats claim state and national titles. These four Wildcats earned playing time on a senior-laden squad, showcasing flashes of brilliance.
As such, the quartet will have a distinct challenge ahead of them, Head Coach Mike McLaughlin '85 believes.
"It's a unique time in our program. We're graduating 15 seniors, and that leaves a void because our seniors had a lot of varsity minutes under their belt, because they were good leaders," said McLaughlin. "But it's an exciting time, too. Our captains have worked really hard. They've exhibited leadership characteristics, and they have the respect of teammates and coaches."
The four captains share three characteristics in common, according to McLaughlin.
"First off, they're all wonderful young men," said the veteran coach. "Secondly, they are all strong students. And lastly, they've distinguished themselves within the program. They love the program and they're excited to rep Saint Ignatius and wear the captain's armband."
Let's meet the captains, going in alphabetical order.
We begin with Nic Barzacchini. The current junior has battled plenty of adversity to reach this point. One of the most lauded players in his class, Barzacchini has battled injury after injury during his time at Wildcat High.
The Avon native made the junior varsity squad as a freshman, showing flashes of promising talent. But nagging injuries prevented him from playing much in his first season as a Wildcat.
His sophomore season on JV went much the same way. Barzacchini played a game here or there but couldn't manage to stay healthy and on the field.
"Nic has had an interesting three years," McLaughlin said. "He's been hurt a lot. Coming into Saint Ignatius, he was one of the better kids in the state for his age and class. But he couldn't get healthy. He was largely out of the game for a couple of years."
Entering the 2019 season, the Saint Ignatius coaching staff was unsure about the rising junior. Would he be able to stay healthy and on the field?
The answer was yes. Barzacchini fought hard and played a full season with the Wildcats, avoiding long stretches of missed times as in previous seasons. The 5'11, 165-pound midfielder appeared in 14 games and played 251 minutes.
"In the preseason, we weren't sure what he'd do. Everyone knows he can play. But could he stretch together several months of being healthy? He did, and battled through," McLaughlin said. "I'm proud the way he dealt with it. He was good as a lot of the seniors when he played. He got all of his injuries behind him, and hopefully he's out of the woods. As a central midfielder, he can control the game from the middle of the field. He could have a huge impact on the program."
And with a 4.33 cumulative GPA, Barzacchini is an excellent student in the classroom.
Next up is Niko Basic. Also a first-year letterwinner in 2019, Basic impressed on the JV level in 2017 and 2018 before making the varsity squad this past season.
Basic plays in the middle of the field, either as a midfielder or a centerback. The Clevelander could be an anchor piece in the middle for the Wildcats, helping to control the pace of the game.
Basic enjoyed a very nice junior campaign for the Wildcats. The 5'11, 160-pound playmaker appeared in 14 games and logged 253 minutes. Basic notched 3 goals and 2 assists, totaling 8 points on the year.
McLaughlin sees a bright future for the Croatian stud.
"Niko is a wonderful young man," said the 26th year bench boss. "It's a tough situation for Basic and his fellow captains, because they would have started anywhere else in the state. But they continued to work hard. Niko is a smart player with good feet who's another central type of player. He bears some similarity to Danny Kalic, another Croatian, who has good physical presence and is calm on the ball. Niko will play in the middle, be it at midfield or on defense."
We move on to Marko Rimac, a Wildcat whose name has become prominent to Saint Ignatius soccer fans.
Rimac earned plenty of time on the field as a junior. The first-year letterwinner starred for the Wildcats in 2019 after two nice seasons on JV. Even on a senior-filled squad, Rimac earned 6 starts and 22 appearances. Rimac registered 844 minutes, the most by an underclassman last season. The Willoughby Hills native tallied 11 goals and 5 assists for a total of 27 points. Rimac scored the first and final goals of the season for the Wildcats.
A vocal young man with a wonderful personality, the rising senior forward will be a critical cog for the Wildcats in 2020. He'll do well as a captain, as his teammates gravitate towards him.
"Of all of the rising seniors, he played the most in 2019. He scored some incredible goals," McLaughlin said. "He's a winger with great speed and skill, he can shoot the ball. He's dynamic and dangerous. He's grown a lot, I'm proud of how he's developed in the classroom and soccer field. Marko is a tremendous kid."
Rounding out the pack is Liam Sowell. The rising senior is the lone returning goalie with varsity experience.
After spending his freshman and sophomore seasons on the JV level, Sowell earned a spot on the varsity squad this past season. Playing behind two outstanding seniors (Peter Van Euwen and Danny Radigan) as a goalie is never easy. But Sowell handled the situation well and continued to work hard and improve.
Sowell saw action in five games this past season, logging 72 minutes on the pitch. During that span, Sowell allowed 1 goal and made 1 save.
"It's tough to be a goalkeeper at Saint Ignatius," McLaughlin said. "We have a long line of bigtime goalkeepers over the last couple of decades. But Liam has become better and better every year, with his hands, decision making, and his feet. He's a great student who's really self-motivated. Liam works so hard at his craft. He's earned the trust of his teammates and coaches."
With these four captains leading the Soccer Cats, the 2020 outlook is bright for the Saint Ignatius soccer program.