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Looking Back At The OHSAA's Boys Soccer Championships

Feature Article

By Timothy L. Hudak 
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
Soccer is relatively new to the state tournament format in Ohio. The boys have been playing for a state championship for just 30 years, while the girls have only been battling for state honors since 1985. However, in spite of its relatively short life, the boys soccer tournament has proven to be one of the most exciting and hotly contested of any sport in the state. Unlike some of the other sports, where one or two schools may have dominated for many years, such his not the case with boys soccer. Only six schools have won as many as three titles, none has won more than four. Still, the cream always rises to the top, and Ohio boys soccer certainly has had its share of the cream.
The boys soccer tournament has gone through an evolution of four stages. From that first tournament in 1976, through the 1980 season, all schools played for just one championship. From 1981 through 1988, the schools were divided into Class AAA-AA-A, with the Class AAA schools playing for one championship, and the A-AA schools playing for a combined title. From 1989 to 1999 all schools were divided into two Divisions, I and II, with each playing for its own championship. Since 2001, a Division III has been added, with those schools also playing for a state title. 
When the terms “St. Ignatius High School” and “athletics” are mentioned, most people immediately think of football and the Wildcats’ unprecedented success in that sport. However, St. Ignatius is hardly a one-sport school. Recently, Sports Illustrated magazine placed the Wildcats among the Top 25 schools in the country for overall excellence in athletics during the past 10 years, and as the best in the Buckeye State. It was probably soccer that put the Cats over the top, but there were some, especially head soccer coach Mike McLaughlin, who thought that a state championship in soccer would forever elude the Wildcats.
For more than ten years now the Wildcats have produced some of the best soccer teams in the state and have been annually knocking on the door for a Division I state soccer title, but somehow it has always managed to slip away. Things were getting so bad that coach McLaughlin had been tagged with the title of “the world’s unluckiest Irishman.” A perfect example was the Division I semi-final game in 1995, when the Wildcats out shot Findlay High School by an incredible 37-2, but watched as both Findlay shots found the back of the net, while only one of the Wildcats’ found its mark. Or in the 2000 semi-final game against the Eagles of North Olmsted High School, when the Wildcats’ top scorer and Ohio “Player of the Year,” David Maier, missed a shot on a wide-open goal as the Cats fell 1-0, after defeating the Eagles 5-0 earlier in the season. At other times injuries to key players derailed the Wildcats.
Finally, however, St. Ignatius put it all together in 2004. Led by Ohio “Player of the Year” and All-American, Gavin Blades, the Wildcats defeated Westerville North, a team that had lost only once in 22 previous outings, 1-0 in the championship game, on a goal scored with just under ten minutes left in the game. But the Cats were not finished, and the 2004 season proved to be only a warm up for what Ohio soccer fans saw in 2005. In 2005 the senior-laden Wildcats had one of the most incredible soccer seasons in Ohio high school history. Pushing their win streak to 30 in a row, they finished with a record of 23-0-0, the first undefeated, untied soccer season in school history. In winning their second consecutive state title the Wildcats became only the second Division I school (Brecksville, 1992-1993) to do so. 
Not only did they take state honors, but the Wildcats, led by three All-Americans (Mark Blades, Justin Morrow, Barry Rice) and “National Coach of the Year” Mike McLauglin, were also named the Number 1 team in the country. Only one other boys team in Ohio has ever won a national championship in soccer, that being the Hudson Explores in 2002.
When St. Ignatius suffered that upset loss to North Olmsted in the 2000 state semi-final game, it really should not have come as much of a surprise to those who follow Ohio high school soccer. While several schools have had good runs of success covering several years, perhaps no school has been as consistently successful in boys soccer as the Eagles of North Olmsted High School. 
Since the state tournament began in 1976, and continuing up through that 2000 season, the Eagles have annually been at the top of Ohio boys soccer. Under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Tom Hatfield, the Eagles made it as far as the semi-finals in the first state tournament. Using that experience as a steppingstone, coach Hatfield’s Eagles came right back the next year. Led by all-state forward Kevin Terry’s 47 goals, the Eagles went 19-1-1 in winning the 1977 state title - in only the school’s sixth year of the sport. 
The Eagles then suffered through a couple of “off’ years, but were back in the state tournament from 1980-1982, reaching the semi-finals each time. Finally, in 1984 and 1985 North Olmsted again advanced to the Class AAA state finals. They lost to Centerville, 2-1, in overtime in 1984, suffering their only loss in 24 outings (20-1-3). In 1985 it was again Centerville vs. North Olmsted in the Class AAA finals, both teams entering the game with perfect 24-0-0 records. Led by All-American defender Joe Palmisono, the Eagles built up a 3-0 lead early in the second half on their way to a convincing 3-1 victory, the first team to ever repeat as Class AAA state soccer champion. The Eagles’ 25 victories that season are still the most by any school in the state, boys or girls (tied by Clayton Northmont’s boys team in 1988).
Coach Hatfield again had the Eagles in the final four each year from 1987-1990, advancing to the championship game in both 1988 and 1989, but it would not be until 1996 when North Olmsted would again win a state championship. Now coached by Chris Marsh, the Eagles (18-1-4) were making their first final four appearance in six years. In the Division I championship game they again faced the Centerville Elks, who entered the game undefeated at 20-0-1, top ranked in Ohio and #2 in the country. The score was tied 1-1 when the Eagles’ Tracy Dowe sent the game winning shot, a 35-yard effort, into the Elks’ net with just 2:48 left on the game clock.
Coach Marsh had the Eagles back in the Division I title game in both 1999 and 2000. In 1999, the game against Westerville North went through two overtimes and into a shootout. The Eagles won the shootout 4-3, and thus the game, 2-1, to capture their record setting fourth Division I state championship. In 2000 the Eagles lost in the finals to Worthington Kilbourne.
In the 25 years from 1976-2000, the North Olmsted Eagles have qualified for the state tournament 14 times, advanced to the finals eight times and have won four state championships. No other school, boys or girls, can equal that record of success.
Kettering’s Archbishop Alter High School is the only other school to win four boys soccer championships, but their success is of a more recent vintage. Advancing to the final four for the first time in 1987, Alter defeated Walsh Jesuit, 2-1, to win the Class AAA crown. The next year, playing in class AA, the Knights defeated Columbus St. Charles, 2-1, in a shootout to take another state title. In doing so, the Knights became the first school to win back-to-back state soccer championships, albeit in different Classes. 
Alter would not make it back to the final four, now Division II, again until 1993, but then the Knights would become almost a fixture in the championship game over the next six seasons. They would play for the state title in 1993-1994-1996-1998, winning the top prize in both 1996 and 1998, beating out North Olmsted by two years in becoming the state’s first four-time boys soccer champion.
While the honoring of high school soccer teams and players at the national level is still of relatively recent vintage, Ohio has come in for its share of the glory. It has already been mentioned that first Hudson (2002), and then St. Ignatius (2005), have won national championships. There are also a couple of Ohio soccer players who have shown themselves to be outstanding enough to earn some well deserved personal recognition.  Forward Xavier Balc earned Ohio “Player of the Year” and All-America honors in 2002 in leading Hudson’s Explorers to their first state and national championships. In 2003 Balc repeated as Player of the Year and All-American, this time leading his team to a final four berth. 
Over at Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School, another young man has just finished a great high school soccer career. Ken “Kiki” Willis helped the Cardinals earn a Division II state championship in 2002, and a runner-up trophy in 2004. In doing so, Willis earned himself All-American recognition three consecutive years, 2002-2003-2004, as well as Division II “Player of the Year” honors in 2004. During his four-year soccer career Willis scored 172 goals, an all-time record in Ohio and good for sixth place in the national record book. 
Two other boys deserve mention for their accomplishments. James Walchanowicz, who played for Garfield Heights High School from 1981-83, has the second highest total in the nation for career saves with 1,072, and his single season mark of 403 is fourth nationally. Kolby LaCrone, who played for Dresden Tri-Valley from 2001-2004, had 109 career assists, good for fourth all-time in the country.