Following a near 8-hour bus trip to New Jersey on Thursday, the Saint Ignatius varsity soccer team faced one of the biggest challenges in program history on Friday night.
Despite battling hard and to the end, the Wildcats could not overcome St. Benedict's Prep, the No. 1 team in the country. The men of Mike McLaughlin '85 lost the game to the Gray Bees, 3-1.
The loss drops the Wildcats to 9-1-2 on the year, but the Soccer Cats had nothing to be ashamed of after Friday's contest.
"I've been coaching high school soccer for 20+ years, and we've traveled all over the country. This team is, without a doubt, the best high school team a Saint Ignatius team has ever played against," McLaughlin said.
The Gray Bees came out firing on all cylinders in front of a rabid crowd at Pittser Field on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey. St. Benedict's controlled possession early and fired shots at the Saint Ignatius net.
At the 15 minute mark, the Wildcats earned a promising chance, perhaps their best of the first half. But after that, the Gray Bees went to work.
Julian Gomez opened the scoring for the host on a picturesque goal midway through the first. A junior, Gomez showed an impressive boot on the first tally of the game.
St. Benedict's footskills stayed on display as the half continued. Israel Neto extended the lead to 2-0 Gray Bees on a marvelous chip at the 29-minute mark.
The lead stretched to 3-0 just five minutes later. Henrique Cruz scored on a direct kick goal, another beauty, to place St. Benedict's firmly in the driver's seat. The Gray Bees' fans loved the early offense from the home team.
Try as the Wildcats did, the men of Ohio City could not find the net in the final stages of the half.
Fans who did not see the game might think the Wildcats had a poor performance in net. That could not be further from the truth. Goalkeeper Peter Van Euwen played an exceptional half and game. The junior showcased incredible athleticism with diving saves, leaping grabs, and smart movement in net.
"Tonight showed the quality of Peter Van Euwen," McLaughin said. "His hands are great, and it was difficult to be a goalkeeper tonight. The ball was pretty slippery. He was sure-handed and athletic. He made some acrobatic saves, and held on to some challenging balls played into the box."
Down 3-0 at half for one of the first times in program history, McLaughlin made some adjustments in formation, along with passing lanes.
Overall, McLaughlin was impressed at how his team started the second half.
"We moved a couple players around, but ultimately, it's 'How can we get the ball out of the back.' So we talked about a couple passing channels we were missing," McLaughlin said. "It's easy for me to talk about them, but it's on the players to sort it out when guys are running at them. That's the challenge. But we were able to sort things out in the second half, and guys fought harder, and won the 50/50 balls. When you do that, you start to have chances."
The Wildcats did create plenty of chances to start the second half. In fact, St. Benedict's seemed somewhat surprised that the Wildcats did not roll over. The Cleveland kids kept fighting.
The play was even throughout the first portion of the second stanza, with the Wildcats enjoying an advantage in possession time. Following some pressing forward, the Wildcats finally broke through in the 64th minute.
Bryce Horton sent a dangerous shot forward at the Gray Bees' keeper. The ball deflected off the post and the keep leaped for it. Seeing a chance, Kory Nekeloff roared forward and slotted the ball into the back of the net for the Wildcats' first goal of the contest.
As the half continued, the Wildcats continued to generate chances, as did the Gray Bees. But neither team found twine, thanks in part to the defensive effort by both teams' backlines and smart midfielders. And most importantly, the Wildcats played until the final whistle, never surrendering.
"Soccer is about adjusting. Coaches can try to give ideas to change games, but ultimately, it's the players who have to make the adjustments while they're playing," McLaughlin said. "In the first half, we struggled to stay on the field. In the second half, we really competed and did well. We had the ball in our half more than they had it in their half. We stopped them from being dangerous in the second half and we created some things. That was really positive."
Plenty of Wildcats deserved kudos for playing well amidst the defeat. Theo Kudlo, who challenged St. Benedict's best player, earned some props, as did several other Cats.
"Their best player was marked by Theo. In the first half, Theo had some troubles with them, but sorted them out. In the second half, Theo did what Theo does – he makes life difficult for the opponent," McLaughlin said. "Kyle [Folds] and Danny [Kalic] and Nolan [Bartelone] did some good work in the back. I thought Matthew [McLaughlin] and Kyle Healy worked hard in the middle. Bryce, as usual, worked hard up top and made it difficult for St. Benedict's to handle him."
The loss marked one of the Wildcats' first ever defeats on this type of trip. The Soccer Cats traveled to NYC in 2015, Denver in 2016, and Jamaica in July 2018, compiling a 8-0 mark over that span.
But Friday night's defeat is not a crushing one for the Wildcats.
"We've been on these road trips and played teams from the East coast, West coast, and the Midwest. Regardless of the outcome today, one of the biggest reasons for coming here is to grow, as a team and to learn what we're capable of," McLaughlin said. "We learned that we can play and we can handle these tough types of situations. Despite the loss, there's a feeling the group, coming away from this game, that we can play soccer at a high level. If we do that, we have a chance to get to Columbus Crew Stadium on November 10."
First, the Wildcats will return to action on Saturday evening in New York. The Soccer Cats will face Chaminade, a Jesuit school in New York, at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Nassau County, New York.
The SIBN cannot broadcast the game, but updates will be provided thanks to the Wildcats' great support staff, including managers Julio Paez '20 and Kevin Cook '19, videographer Nate Brey '20, and coach/moderator Aaron Mekker '06.
Exploring NYC: On Friday, the Wildcats visited Manhattan to take in the sites and to learn some history.
The team stopped at Strawberry Fields and took a run in Central Park, ate lunch at Harry's, and visited the September 11 Memorial.
During the visit to the memorial, McLaughlin spoke to the team about true sacrifice and what it means to be a Man for Others.
"We talked about the measure of a man, and it often comes down to his ability to sacrifice for those around him. That's real-life situations," McLaughlin said. "I'm hoping that these guys continue to grow in their desire to serve others, and to work for each other and the team. When you do that, and put a lot of energy and effort into something, special things can happen."