It was billed as the biggest soccer game in the history of Peoria, Illinois. Notre Dame High School soccer coach Mike Bare appeared on Peoria’s ESPN radio affiliate two days before the game to talk about the big event, and the lead story on local television news shows was the impending heavyweight matchup. Not the lead story during the sports segment – the “lead story” lead story.
Why all the excitement over a high school soccer game? Well, the Wildcats of Saint Ignatius were coming to town to take on the #1 in the nation Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (High School, that is). Four pre-season USA Today All Americans, including Indiana recruit Kyle Folds ’20 and (University of) Notre Dame signee Matthew McLaughlin ’20, would be on the field. This was going to be a huge event for the eighth largest city in Illinois and the city was psyched, packing over 2,000 fans around the perimeter of the soccer field at ND High.
The day before the Cats made their journey to Peoria I had a chance to talk briefly with our legendary head coach, Mike McLaughlin ’85, about this important road trip. I was heartened, but in no way surprised, that Mike wanted to impress upon his players things that had nothing to do with whether or not we won this important match up. He wanted these Wildcats to see this as an opportunity to be involved in something special, and not to miss the opportunity to “take it all in.”
This wasn’t the first “nationally ranked showdown” for the soccer program at Saint Ignatius, and it wasn’t even the first such event for this year’s team. Only two weeks ago the perennial national powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep from New Jersey brought their #2 ranking to Krenzler Field at Cleveland State to face the #1 ranked Cats in a colossal showdown that ended, fittingly, in a 2-2 draw.
The fact that Coach McLaughlin has been through these kinds of events so many times throughout his storied career shows in his belief that wins and losses (and draws) are going to happen, but what you take from the experience can be so much more. For our players to walk onto what is ostensibly a rectangular piece of lawn and to realize that it has been transformed into a venue for an incredible event is what Mike wants his players to take away from their experiences in such “big game” situations.
There is a beauty to sport that has very little to do with the numbers on the scoreboard when the triple zeroes appear, and it is heartening to see – in a country dominated by high school and college coaches, administrators, and fans obsessed with winning at all cost – an approach that sees the possibility of joy and meaning in the event itself. Wins and losses (and draws) are ephemeral – the score that is so important today will soon be forgotten in light of the score that will be so important tomorrow, yet it is the joy of competing with and against others who all strive to achieve both personal and communal excellence that make playing games like soccer so meaningful.
Even at the highest level, for example, big time college football, the beauty of such moments can be captured – despite the oftentimes absurd hatred and animosity that rivalries can create. At the end of the fascinating 30 for 30 film Catholics vs. Convicts, University of Miami running back Cleveland Gary, the man who allegedly fumbled on the goal line against the other Fighting Irish, was asked: If you could go back in time and replay that game would you? His answer: No.
After all of those replays in his head, after all of the arguments about that “fumble” and what it cost his team, his response was that the game turned out pretty much as it should have. His vision, one that flies in the face of what passes for common wisdom, saw beyond the score to the event itself and what it meant to be a part of college football history.
The Wildcats defeated the Fighting Irish 2-0 on two second half goals by Everett Shorey ’20, and thus our illustrious soccer program notched another impressive win against an outstanding team. But those facts only scrape the surface of what went on last Friday evening in Peoria, Illinois.
Peoria sports radio broadcaster Jim Mattson gave a much better description when he tweeted: “I know it’s not the result Peoria Notre Dame wanted- but tonight was a GREAT night for soccer! Thanks to PND and St Ignatius!” A great night for soccer, and a great night for all those who walked away from that field with the knowledge that they had not just seen, but had experienced, something special.