The Wildcats captured their 13th straight OHSAA State Championship, winning their fifth in as many years, this Saturday in dramatic fashion, taking down the Archbishop Moeller Crusaders in penalty kicks.
The matchup would mark the fourth-ever meeting between the two programs; the Wildcats have won two and drawn one. However, those previous matchups were far removed from the stakes of this one.
The Wildcats entered 16-3-3, ranked third in Ohio by the OSSCA. They had just come off a decisive 3-0 upset victory over the Medina Bees and they looked to carry the momentum through to the State Final.
Moeller sat at 24-0-0 amidst a historic season, having only conceded one goal to the 92 they had scored and were ranked first nationally by the United Soccer Coaches National Poll. Their last goal was conceded on August 19th, their first game of the season against Walnut Hills. This incredible stat had earned them both the OHSAA records for most consecutive shutouts (23) and the few goals conceded in a regular season (1).
The game was played at Historic Crew Stadium, where the Saint Ignatius Soccer program has had tremendous success, being 10-1 and having won the first ten of the program’s state championships there. The wider field historically has played to the Cats’ advantage, as their fitness, dribbling skills and aptitude for on-point crosses give them an edge with more room to play.
The Wildcats would come out in a traditional 4-3-3, looking to stop any Crusader attacks while attempting to pierce the near-perfect Moeller defensive line.
In the early minutes of the competition, the ball wouldn’t seem to settle on either side of the pitch, with both teams looking to scrap together a good possession and seize the momentum. Moeller would get this chance early in the 14th minute, as Moeller’s Karson Lang played a corner kick in from the left side of the pitch. After a struggle for possession, Crusader Paxton Hafner would find the ball at his feet on the right side of the six-yard box. His shot would beat Wildcat keeper Colin Monroe to the near post and find its way in to give Moeller an early lead.
For many, this goal, despite the Wildcats having 66 minutes to equalize, was the dagger in the Cats’ side, as Moeller had won three of their last four games by this precarious score. Despite this, the Wildcats would fight to find the equalizer.
The possession for the remainder of the first half remained relatively even. Both teams would earn promising chances but fail to score before the half. The early minutes of the second half would be much the same.
The Wildcats’ hopes of a fifth consecutive state championship slowly drifted away as the clock wound down. That was, until, in the 75th minute, David Salukombo would be fouled in the final third of the Moeller side. Nick Mikulec would take the free kick, delivering a right-footed, in-swinging ball to the front of the six-yard box.
Sophomore Bryce Ince-Lovelace would run onto it and jump, rising above the Crusader defenders, getting a head on the ball and delivering a powerful shot into the back of the net. The Wildcats had equalized at 1-1 in the waning moments of regulation, scoring the first goal on Moeller goalkeeper Austin Nowak all season and the first goal on the Crusaders since August.
The Wildcats would have several promising attacks in five minutes of regulation. However, the clock would ultimately run out, and the first of two fifteen-minute overtime periods would commence.
With both teams exhausted from the previous 80 minutes of play, the game would slow down and neither team could score the golden goal. The clock would once again hit zero on the first and then the second overtime period, sending the game to penalty kicks.
The shootout would mark the second-ever State Final shootout in Saint Ignatius Soccer history, with the first being a defeat in 2009 at the hands of Gahanna Lincoln, the only time the Wildcats had ever been defeated in the State Championship.
The Wildcats would win the coin flip and elect to shoot first, with the penalties being taken on the stadium’s south end, adjacent to the Moeller student section. It would be Nowak and Monroe, each representing their teams in goal.
The first round of five penalties would find the shootout tied at 4-4, with McLaughlin, de la Barrera, Ruggiero and Mikulec scoring for the Cats and Poppell, Cooper, Warncke and Segal scoring for the Crusaders. The sudden death round of penalties would then commence.
The Wildcats would send Salukombo up to be their first representative, who would send Nowak the wrong way and score. It would then be Johnny Michel to kick for Moeller, with Monroe looking to send the Wildcats home victorious with a save. Michel would get a running start, approach the ball and strike it to his left. Reading the hips of the Moeller forward, Monroe would dive left and knock the ball away with his legs, securing a fifth straight State Championship.
The game enters the OHSAA record books as a draw. However, the OSSCA and United Soccer Coaches recognize the game as a win, concluding the Wildcats’ season at 17-3-3. The Crusaders finished with a 24-1-0 record, only conceding two goals in the run of play all year, which included Bryce Ince-Lovelace’s spectacular header.
The 2023 Ignatius Soccer season was filled with ups and downs, failures and successes. Still, when it came down to it, against all odds, they knocked off the top-ranked team in the nation and won their fifth straight State Championship.