Nearly 200 schools with enrollments of more than 400 males were eligible to compete for the Division I boys soccer state championship this fall.
Only two schools remain with a shot at the prestigious title.
Top-ranked St. Francis is one of them, making its first-ever venture into the title-deciding match against fifth-ranked Westerville North at 7 tonight at Columbus Crew Stadium.
The Knights are a sparkling 20-0-2 and are one victory shy of claiming the title and finishing with one of the best season records in the history of Ohio high school soccer.
“We realize to get to this point in the season we have to play solid offensively and defensively,” St. Francis coach John Orozco said. “Our approach will be the same as it s been the past 22 games. The only thing different is it carries a bigger prize - the state championship.”
Without a doubt, the Knights formula for success this fall has worked wondrously, and they ve won at a record rate.
St. Francis had never won even 19 games in a season before, not to mention finishing a season without a loss. Should the Knights top a tough Westerville North team it would give them 21 wins without a loss, and that would rate as the third-best all-time season record in Ohio. North Olmsted (1985) and Northmont (1988) produced 25-0 records en route to winning state titles. In 1970, Rocky River ended up 11-0.
For Orozco, who will take part in a pep rally with the team at the school today before heading to Columbus, there s been no time to soak up what the Knights have done this year. The work put in to reach this point has kept his mind occupied.
“I don t know that I expected something like this to come at such a quick pace,” Orozco said. “We didn t have time to reflect on all of this. In a couple of weeks or a few days I ll have to reflect.”
In the meantime, the Knights have spent this week concerning themselves with Westerville North (17-1-4), a team that has thrived in the same mode as St. Francis.
“It s two good, solid, all-around teams that basically find a way to get it done,” North coach Andrew Arthurs said. “I think we re very much alike.”
Like St. Francis, North leans on everyone to play his part during a game. The Warriors make liberal use of their bench, just as the Knights have done during their run through the playoffs. Seniors Jordan Koblens and Greg Swank represent the Warriors two primary scoring threats - Koblens leads North with 10 goals and Swank has nine.
Drew Czekanski has been solid in goal, allowing only nine goals all season, and North has recorded 15 shutouts.
“We ll have to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves,” said Orozco, in his eighth season coaching the Knights. “We have to apply defensive pressure up and down the field.”
Arthurs is in his ninth season at North, and this is his fourth time playing in the state final match. The Warriors won the state championship in 1995 and finished runners-up in 97 and 99.
Arthurs said his experience in the title game has shown him that the team that makes the fewest mistakes has the best chance to win.
“At this level mistakes get magnified,” Arthurs said.
Nick Weiner and Bart Urbaniak have been two key contributors in the Knights season. Weiner leads the team with 20 goals, and Urbaniak has come through with two of his three goals for the season during the playoffs. He recorded game-winning goals over Findlay and Hudson.
The Knights have had a rougher road, playing No. 3 Strongsville in a regional final and No. 2 Hudson in the state semifinal.
Urbaniak, Aaron Lechlak, Tom Rose, Zach Wazny, David Marczak and Mookie Ellis have played key roles.
St. Francis goalie Tom Yaggi, who responded with 10 saves in the 1-0 win over defending state champion Hudson in the state semifinal on Tuesday, has been a defensive force.
Ultimately, the play in goal by Yaggi and Czekanski well could decide the outcome.
It s 80 minutes and counting.