Every season, Mike McLaughlin '85 schedules a hard slate full of challenges for his Saint Ignatius varsity soccer team. That's intentional.
The Clevelanders traveled down I-71 on Saturday to play the No. 3 team in Ohio, the Olentangy Liberty Patriots. In a potential preview of the state championship, the Wildcats earned a 2-0 victory.
In doing so, the Wildcats passed the final test of the regular season on Saturday in Columbus.
"There are a lot of reasons we put together the schedule the way we put it together. This was a great tuneup heading into the tournament," said McLaughlin. "It's an opportunity to see if the boys can get on a bus, go to Columbus, get off the bus, and play against a big-time opponent. Hopefully, on November 10, we're doing the same thing. This game could be a potential preview of the state championship. A lot has to happen with both teams, but it was that caliber of game."
Starting Saturday's game strong was of chief importance to the Wildcats. Traveling well is critical in the state tournament, particularly at the high school level.
The Wildcats did just that. Working hard from the get-go, the Soccer Cats scored the first goal at the 15-minute mark.
Austin Zeleznik played a ball from the left side all the way to the far side to Theo Kudlo to kickstart the play. Kudlo then dribbled it down the field and tried to take on an opponent in the box. The Patriots' defender went after the ball, but instead took down Kudlo in the box, initiating a penalty kick.
Kyle Folds converted on the PK, giving the Wildcats an early 1-0 lead. Folds has become a big-time goal scorer this season for the Wildcats.
"We wanted to see if our boys could get ready right from the get-go, and we spent a lot of time talking about starting strong," McLaughlin said.
Later in the first half, the Wildcats struck again. Ryan Notarianni played in a ball to senior Kyle Healy. The captain fired a shot towards the net at the keeper, who deflected it towards the back post. Bryce Horton saw an opportunity and charged forward, chesting the ball into the back of the net.
As McLaughlin happily commented, it was a complete team goal. The Wildcats entered the break in full command, with a 2-0 lead.
"We started strong, which is really important," McLaughlin said. "We controlled the ball most of the game. That was some of the best ball movement we've had the entire season. We were comfortable with the ball in the back, we moved it through the middle, and got it up front where we got some good chances."
The Wildcats continued to control the tempo in the second half, distributing the ball well between the defenders, midfielders, and forwards.
Several promising chances tested Olentangy Liberty in the second half, but the Patriots stood strong and kept the margin at two goals.
On the flipside, the Wildcats' defenders played well. Peter Van Euwen did well in net for the Wildcats, too, keeping the hosts from finding twine on Saturday afternoon.
"Offensively, Liberty is a dynamic team. They've scored some goals and beaten some good teams," McLaughlin said. "Our defense did a great job in keeping their players under wraps. Peter Van Euwen had a really strong performance on Saturday. You need your goalkeepers to step up big at this point of the season."
With the victory, the Wildcats finished the regular season at 13-1-2. The team is currently the No. 1 team in Ohio and the Great Lakes region, according to Top Drawer Soccer.
The Soccer Cats' journey to its ninth state championship begins for real on Saturday. The squad will host the winner of Parma-Valley Forge on Saturday at 7 p.m. on Wasmer Field in the District Quarterfinal.
"Our schedule has prepared us. We've seen teams that no other team in the state has seen," McLaughlin said. We've played a schedule unlike anybody else in Ohio hoping that this has prepared us for a deep run into the tournament. This is the third season, or third phase of the season. This is when everything we've done all season gets turned up a few notches. The intensity, the pressure. This is where the big boys get a chance to shine. We've placed a bunch of tests in front of the players throughout the season, and we've learned a lot from those tests.
"Saturday is an indication that we're moving in the right direction. Every year, we have a game or two that helps us coaches to see if we're ready to perform on the biggest stage, and Saturday was one of those games," McLaughlin continued. "So, the message is, 'Go and fight for a state championship. They don't give them away, you have to earn it.' Everyone talks, and says they want to win. Now is a chance for the people who let their actions do the speaking."