COLUMBUS, Oh - This past Saturday, the Wildcats took on the New Albany Eagles in their fourth consecutive OHSAA State Championship match, the finale of their 2022 season. The Saint Ignatius side was looking to win their fourth straight Division I State Championship, a feat yet to be accomplished by any soccer team in the history of OHSAA soccer.
Along with this accomplishment, a victory would make the soccer program the team with the most state championships, with twelve. Historically, the Wildcats have been a team that has consistently dominated the state final; in their 12 previous appearances, they have won all but one, with an extraordinary 11-1 record. This is the highest State Final winning percentage of any OHSAA Division I team with multiple appearances.
The Wildcats had punched their ticket to the game the previous Wednesday night with a gritty 1-0 victory over Medina. New Albany clinched the state final after Gabe Anthony scored a double-overtime winner over Moeller. The game would be a rematch of the 2020 State Championship, a 4-1 victory for the Wildcats.
The match was held at Lower.com Field, the newly built home of the MLS’ Columbus Crew. The field is made up of pristine grass and is tied for second among MLS stadiums in the most extensive field dimensions. The Wildcats, a group incredibly talented out of the air, used these large dimensions to their advantage throughout the match, giving them a slight edge.
The game was played at 1:00 p.m. in hopes that field conditions would be the best possible. However, the rain from the day prior made the grass quite slippery, a factor that would undoubtedly come into play throughout the match.
The Wildcats came out in a 4-3-3 formation, with Zsombor Onodi, Nathan Trickett and Carter Snyder at forward, Nolan Spicer, Owen Sullivan and Nick Mikulec in the midfield, and Ernie Vargo, Owen Maruca, Phil Vlastaris, and Thomas Nader at backs, and Patrick McLaughlin in goal.
Except for Mikulec, the Wildcat squad was made up entirely of seniors eager to end their high school careers victorious. The Eagles attempted to run 4-3-3, but due to the constant pressure applied by the Wildcat midfielders, it would ultimately morph into more of a 4-5-1.
Once the game kicked off, it quickly became apparent that the slick grass would become a significant factor that any team with hopes of winning would have to overcome. Time and time again, a well-played ball would skip past its intended target and be out of bounds. This became quite detrimental to both sides, as they each repeatedly tried to play the ball in the air, leading to many passes going astray. The game remained deadlocked at 0 for the entirety of the first half, in part because of the unique conditions. However, the Wildcats held a very apparent advantage regarding the time of possession.
At halftime, Head Soccer Coach Mike McLaughlin '85 emphasized that the entirety of the 23-game season came down to the next 40 minutes. And despite the suboptimal score, the team held their heads high, confident that the ever-so-important goal would come sooner or later.
In the second half of play, the Cats would continue to apply constant pressure to the New Albany backs and it became apparent that they were beginning to tire. After another fifteen scoreless minutes, the Wildcats would finally get their breakthrough.
New Albany would concede a corner kick on the right side of the pitch. The left-footed Marty McLaughlin would step up to deliver an in-swinging kick. The kick ricocheted off the Wildcats' Ernie Vargo, then off of a New Albany back, then to the head of Maruca. The senior’s header would go right to the goal line, where a New Albany defender tried to bat the ball above the goal; however, despite his effort, the ball had already crossed the line, a goal for the Wildcats. Maruca’s third goal of the year would put the Wildcats up 1-0 and in a position to bring home their 12th state championship.
"The ball floated around and I was able to get my head on it," explains Maruca. "I was able to put the ball in the back of the net; it was electric."
The game would remain tight, as both teams would get opportunities but no goals. New Albany remained focused and tried to equalize, but the Vargo-Maruca duo on the defensive line would repeatedly shut them down.
Despite this, the Wildcats were not in the clear, as any mistake could lead to a whole new ballgame at 1-1. This was until, with three minutes left in the game, the Wildcats would put the final nail in the New Albany coffin.
Onodi would receive the ball at the right edge of the 18-yard box, cut towards the goal line, then quickly back towards midfield. The maneuver threw his defender in the wrong direction and left a pass to the top of the box wide open. When Onodi passed the ball, Nolan Spicer was the closest to it. However, he recognized that Sullivan was better at scoring behind him and allowed the ball to pass through his legs and back to Sullivan. Sullivan took a shot on the first touch, hitting the inside of the far post and into the back of the net.
"Z took it down the line and Nolan played a great dummy," says Sullivan. "We were able to create all game and I was able to put one in the back of the net."
New Albany would have one final chance to tally a score in the game's waning moments. A New Albany winger would pass a ball into the box to an unmarked forward, who would take a shot that sailed high and wide of the net. McLaughlin set the ball down for a goal kick and hit a booming kick to Trickett, Trickett hit the ball right back into the air and the clock struck zero. Celebration ensued; the Wildcats were State Champions once again. A team had accomplished a four-peat for the first time in OHSAA Soccer history.
"No better feeling than a winning locker room," Maruca says. "These are my best friends and we finished our senior year strong."
All of the work that the Wildcats put in from August 1st to November 12th had paid off in the raising of the trophy. After all of the injuries, suffering, trials and tribulation were over; the team could finally celebrate. A fantastic and truly memorable way to go out, especially for all 17 seniors who poured blood, sweat and tears into the program over the past four years. It was a truly magnificent season.