On a rainy evening in Parma, the Saint Ignatius varsity soccer team gritted their way to a 2-0 victory over the North Royalton Bears to win the Parma District Championship.
The Bears fought ferociously, holding the Wildcats at bay for the first half until the men of Mike McLaughlin '85 found a way to get it done in the second half.
The Wildcats advanced to 16-1-2 with the win, moving on to the Regional Semifinal on Wednesday vs. the Avon Eagles at Brunswick High School.
The contest began with each team throwing jabs on offense. The Wildcats enjoyed solid chances on offense, as Kory Nekoloff and Theo Kudlo each nearly scored for the Wildcats. The men of Ohio City barely missed on several chances despite the slick ground.
North Royalton had a couple chances, including on a free kick from the near side corner, but the strong Saint Ignatius defense stepped up to prevent any serious pressure from reaching goalkeeper Peter Van Euwen.
As the half continued, the Wildcats saw the majority of the possession. Saint Ignatius continued to create chances. Bryce Horton worked hard with a back-foot pass to Everett Shorey, but the shot in the box careened just wide. Kyle Healy placed a shot on net, but the keeper swallowed it up.
In the 31st minute, North Royalton notched its best chance of the night, a hard rising shot that sailed just high over the upper left corner of the next.
Four minutes later, the referee called a yellow card on the Bears. Kyle Folds took a free kick from about the 30-yard line, a promising chance for the Wildcats. Folds fired it low on net, but the North Royalton keeper ate it up.
Shortly after, Theo Kudlo booted a nice through-ball to Everett Shorey, beating the defense. Unfortunately, the ball bounced about 6 inches past Shorey and harmlessly out of play.
With 56 seconds remaining, the referee called another yellow on the Bears, giving the Wildcats a free kick from the nearside left corner of the box. Matthew McLaughlin sent an arching shot on net, but again the Bears' keeper caught it to end the opportunity.
At halftime, the teams remained deadlocked.
"I give a ton of credit to North Royalton, they were really organized and really difficult to break through," said Coach McLaughlin. "They made it really hard for us to play and to get to their goal."
The Bears attacked off the opening boot, but it was the Wildcats' offense that broke through first, about three minutes into the half. On a corner kick, Matthew McLaughlin lofted a perfect pass to the back post. Theo Kudlo caught the Bears napping and headed the ball just past the goal line for the first tally of the day.
"When you play in the playoffs, every team is good. In good games, when teams are somewhat even, set pieces can make a big difference," said Coach McLaughlin. "This summer in the World Cup, 70% of the goals were scored from set pieces. They can give you a huge advantage, so we put a lot of time and effort into them, offensively and defensively."
North Royalton fought back in response, placing some dangerous balls in the box. But each time the Bears found space, Van Euwen swooped in to grab the ball.
"It was really important to get a shutout tonight. That's our primary focus," said Coach McLaughlin. "If we can't let teams score, we have a great chance to win. I was really happy. On a night like tonight, it's a tough night to be a goal keeper. We kept it out of our goal, and that was really important. Peter was strong. Kyle [Folds] won a bunch of head balls down the stretch to keep them away. In the last 10-15 minutes, they will throw everything at you, and we were able to manage that."
The teams traded possession for the next 10 minutes, until a key foul on the Wildcats was called at the midpoint of the second half. The Bears sent a dangerous shot from the far side corner of the box, only to have Bryce Horton fire it away from harm's way. Horton's heads-up thinking preserved the Saint Ignatius lead.
With nine minutes remaining, the Wildcats added a critical insurance marker. Everett Shorey made the goal possible with a great slide tackle before finding Horton. The senior crossed it to Nekoloff, who tapped it into the back of the net for a crucial goal.
"The weather is so sloppy that the ball is going to keep moving, so keep moving. Don't stop until it goes out of bounds, especially when the ball is played inside the six," said McLaughlin. "That's what happened – the ball got played in, and it was bopping around a little bit, and we popped it in."
Nekoloff almost had another goal with six minutes remaining, but the ball sailed just a bit high on him. The Wildcats continued to pressure the goal, showing no signs of satisfaction with the 2-goal lead.
The Wildcats burned the remainder of the time off the clock, securing the District Championship for the fifth consecutive season.
With the victory, the Wildcats will take Sunday off before preparing for Avon.
"Now we'll focus on Avon, who's a really good team. I'm eager to see what they're about," said McLaughlin. "We haven't played that program in over a decade, so it'll be nice to play somebody different. North Royalton brought something different than our last opponent – everybody is going to bring something different. We'll figure out what Avon is bringing, and we'll set out to beat them."