Cleveland, Oho - After a hot, humid and highly competitive morning practice on Wasmer Field last week, Saint Ignatius' state and nationally acclaimed Head Soccer Coach Mike McLaughlin '85 touched on the past, the present and the not so distant future as his three-time National Champion and record seven-time OHSAA State Champion program was preparing for what is another season of high expectations.
"We graduated four of the finest student athletes that have ever played in our program," said Coach McLaughlin of forward Lawrence Karpeh, midfielders Hayden Parente and John Duldner, and defender Hunter Gordon, mainstays on the Wildcats' back-to-back state championships teams of 2014 and 2015, and National Championship Team of 2015.
"Not only were they great soccer players, but they were great leaders," Coach McLaughlin continued in reference to Lawrence. Hayden, John and Hunter. "A big part of a team's success comes from the leadership and chemistry of the seniors, and last year's group was special."
That said, the man who has molded Saint Ignatius Soccer into a perennial national power, said he is just as equally excited about this year's senior group.
"We have 14 seniors returning, so it really means a lot that they understand the tradition of our program," said Coach McLaughlin, who enters his 22nd season as his alma mater's Head Coach with a career record of 353-46-44, including a 94-14 mark in the OHSAA postseason. Along with his three national titles and seven state championships, Coach McLaughlin has guided his Wildcats to 15 District Championships, 11 Regional titles and an ensuing 11 State Final Four appearances.
"They've been a part of it and they've played in state championship games," Coach McLaughlin said of his Class of 2017. "They have been in the training sessions every day and they understand how hard we need to work to get back there. These kids get it, and now the challenge is to be willing to do the work every day to take us to where we want to go. I think this has the potential to be one of the most special groups we've ever had as well."
Coach McLaughlin said he, his outstanding coaching staff and the players are aware that no soccer team in Ohio has ever won three consecutive state championships.
"It's (winning three in a row) a thought in our minds, but more so in our minds is the fact that we know it comes down to working hard and working for your brothers every day," continued Coach McLaughlin. "If we keep those things in mind, I think we have a chance to get where we want to go."
Coach McLaughlin's 2015 Soccer Cats certainly reached their destination, as they were part of Saint Ignatius' OHSAA record of four state team championships by an all-boys school during the 2015-16 school year. The Soccer Cats joined Coach Dr. Mike Gallagher's Cross Country Team, Coach Pat 'O'Rourke's Ice Hockey Team and Coach Chuck Kyle's Track and Field Team as OHSAA State Champs. Saint Ignatius also had an individual State Champion this past school year in 182-pound wrestling standout Kaden Russell from the Class of 2017.
THE LOOK OF THE 2016 SOCCER CATS: "We're going to defend and press," said Coach McLaughlin, whose Wildcats were the outright national champions by MaxPreps last season and co-national champs with St. Benedict's Prep out of Newark, New Jersey by USA Today. "We're going to try to not let teams have much time on the ball and the moment we lose the ball, we're going to have ten field players pressing to get it back.
"And when we win it (the ball), we're going to do everything possible to keep it," Coach McLaughlin said. "Last year, we could make two or three passes and just give it to Lawrence (Karpeh, now playing at Cleveland State University) and he would do the rest of the work. This year it's a more normal situation, being patient with the ball until things open up. Then we can find channels and exploit spaces, and not just be a one-man operation like Lawrence was many times last year."
Coach McLaughlin pointed out that individually the Wildcats have some "great defenders," and now it's all about how it comes together in making Saint Ignatius great as a team defensively. "It's about 10 guys working together to shut down the other team," he said.
MORE NUMBERS: The Soccer Cats, who finished their 2015 fall to recall with a record of 22-0-1 and added an Ohio-best seventh Division I State Championship to the record sixth state title they brought home in 2014, garnered the nation's top spot for the third time in the illustrious career of Coach McLaughlin
The Soccer Program joins Coach Chuck Kyle's Football Wildcats as three-time National Champions..
Coach McLaughlin's other national titles came in 2005 and 2010.
Saint Ignatius Soccer will enter this season having won its final 16 matches of 2015. The Soccer Cats now carry an unbeaten streak of 36 consecutive matches, a mark that dates back to the 2014 state title run.
Saint Ignatius outscored its opponents in 2015, 127-11. That includes a 48-2 mark in the seven OHSAA postseason tournament matches. The 127 goals are two shy of the mark set by the Cats' 2000 State Final Four Team.
And a final record that truly shows the character of the student athletes who are guided by Coach McLaughlin and his outstanding staff is that 2015 marked the 17th consecutive season that the Soccer Cats were declared NSCAA Team Academic All-Americans.
AMONG THE 2016 NAMES TO REMEMBER: Leading a Saint Ignatius team that is ranked second in the nation and No. 1 regionally and state-wide by most of the meaningful preseason polls is Xavier commit Steve Milhoan, the Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year in 2015 and the area's seven-county Player of the Year last fall by cleveland.com. Steve is one of the premier offensive weapons in the Midwest.
Other big-match tested veterans are Riley Houde, Tommy Patacca, Patrick Strauss, Adam Haas, Matt Trickett and midfielder Johne Vrablic, who is bound for Brown University next year. The 'Cats also employed two junior goalkeepers last season in Lodge Dils and Max Heath.
HOW THE CAPTAINS SEE IT, AS THEY EMPLOY A MOTTO OF "LEGACY AND FAMILY"
Steve Milhoan: "This year, one our strengths is definitely going to be our brotherhood. Just like last year and the year before, it's coming out here every day just like it was a game, making things competitive. It's not a one-man team, it's everybody collectively doing their part.
"Basically, what we're stressing this year is keeping that hunger, keeping that fight. We're at the top right now, but every day we have to keep working to stay there. We're working on our defensive shape and we still have to work a few things out."
Steve said he personally is working on creating space for himself. "Without Lawrence, it's going to be tougher to find the distraction. Finding the guys running off of me is going to be a big key this year."
Adam Hass: "Those four seniors (Karpeh, Duldner, Parente and Gordon) from last year were great role models for us. I kind of have a loud mouth, so I can yell at some players out on the field and just be a leader in the back four. I'm going to try to go forward a little more and attack better.
"We try to schedule as many good teams as possible. We want to know that we're the best, so we want to play the best. We thrive on playing those big games."
Tommy Patacca: "We have a group of 14 seniors, so there are only four players who are not seniors. We need that group of seniors to rise to the occasion and lead us to a state championship.
"I feel we have to make our chemistry stronger and get used to playing together. It's not going to come right away, but by the middle of the year we have to know who's there and when he's there. This year's defense is really strong, we're looking to win every tap that comes to us."
And with the intensity and strength Patacca offers every time out, winning the ball should become one of the 'Cats' strengths from this Friday night at St. Edward through that coveted date in November.
Johne Vrablic: "The 14 seniors, we're going to have to do a great job of leaving our legacy on this program. What we want to leave is not only a state championship and a national championship, but an impression on all of these freshmen that are on the JV (Junior Varsity) A and JV B.
"We have to show the freshmen and the sophomores how it's done. We have to leave a mark. It's our time.
"The senior core is always the key. We just came off a great year and we've been through it for three years and two state championships, so have to show the way. But we have to have younger guys pushing us. That's why this year is going to be great, there are so many talented younger guys challenging us for spots.
"So the competition is great this year. I'm really excited."
And that excitement starts Friday night on the pitch in St. Edward's Brother James Everett, C.S.C., Stadium, as the Soccer Cats open their season against West Side rival St. Edward at 8 PM. The Varsity matchup will be preceded by a Junior Varsity encounter between the 'Cats and the Eagles at 6 PM.
For a look at the complete 2016 Wildcats Soccer Schedule, go to ignatius.edu, click on athletics and click on soccer.