Since taking over the soccer program in 1995 for the late Greg “Doc” Knittel, Mike McLaughlin ’85 has elevated Saint Ignatius soccer to new heights. In his 29 years at the helm, the Cats have won a state soccer record 12 Division I titles, along with seven NSCAA National Champions. On Wednesday, September 27, McLaughlin achieved a new milestone, collecting his 500th career win for the Soccer Cats in a 3-0 victory over Massillon Jackson.
“It is a number that means I have been doing this for a long time. This has allowed me to pause and think about all the amazing players and coaches I have worked with over the years,” explains McLaughlin. “I am proud to drive the bus of this program, but I am the most blessed guy on earth to have the chance to work with so many incredible young men over the years.”
McLaughlin’s first victory came against the Strongsville Mustangs in 1995; since then, he has defeated 104 different teams during his tenure. Under McLaughlin’s leadership, he has coached 319 Saint Ignatius student-athletes and has worked with 34 coaches.
One of his coaches on staff is Player Quality Control Coach and team historian Joe Popelka ’84, who has been with McLaughlin every step of the way. Popelka was a former teammate of McLaughlin and was an assistant with him under coach Knittel. Over the last 29 years, Popelka has been a part of each milestone, most recently, McLaughlin’s 400th win in 2018 against Toledo St. Francis.
“Mike and I have been friends since we were students at Saint Ignatius. When you’re playing soccer as a kid here, you don’t picture this. Soccer has given us a lot,” Popelka says. “I know what kind of person Mike is. He represents the school’s mission. I am proud of him and know how much he loves this game.”
In the match Wednesday night against Jackson, nerves were high as through 70 minutes of play, the Cats and Polar Bears were scoreless. Sophomore Sammy Trivisonno broke the scoreless tie with 10 minutes remaining in the match and within a minute, senior Nick Mikulec extended the lead to 2-0 with a penalty kick. Junior Rafa De La Barrera rounded out the scoring at the 79’ for the 3-0 final to secure win number 500.
“29 years ago, I would have never imagined this,” McLaughlin says. “I am speechless. To have my kids to be a part of it too, it’s special.”
Matt Nigro ’15 joined McLaughlin’s staff this season and is in his first year coaching back at his Alma Mater. Nigro was a member of the 2014 State Championship team with McLaughlin as a student-athlete. “He is the most deserving individual I can think of and honestly, I thought he was beyond 500 at this point,” explains Nigro. “To play for Mike is special, but to get the green light to join the coaching staff is a whole next level of special. He lives what he preaches and being on his staff is an honor.”
As the time expired on Wednesday night, the team and McLaughlin’s family celebrated the unique milestone on Wasmer Field. “I have spent a lot of time on this field. When I was the assistant to Doc Knittel, I remember staying late and closing the gates when it was just me and him and looking around, loving this space,” said McLaughlin after winning his 500th on the campus of Saint Ignatius. “So many amazing games have taken place here; I feel lucky as can be.”
After the celebration, McLaughlin addressed his team, who currently sits at 7-2-1 as they travel to Iowa to compete in the Great River Classic this weekend. “This is a team game; this isn’t about me. It’s about all the coaches and players that have helped to accomplish this,” McLaughlin explains. “What I’ll remember forever is the guys who left everything out on the field for this team and crest and to be able to do it this long makes me truly blessed.”
A look at the numbers for coach McLaughlin: He is 361-40-54 in the regular season and 139-16 in the OHSAA Postseason. McLaughlin has the most National, State and Regional Championships for any Ohio coach. “He is the best coach ever for soccer in this state,” says Popelka. “You can also argue he is the best coach right now in all of high school athletics.”
There is no end in sight for McLaughlin and his staff. Popelka made it known during the celebration. “We aren’t going anywhere,” says Popelka. “We want to get to 600 now.”
A pregame ceremony will occur on Wednesday, October 4, at 6:50 p.m. before the Wildcats host the St. Edward Eagles at Wasmer Field to celebrate coach McLaughlin’s 500th victory. McLaughlin is one of the few soccer players in the Saint Ignatius Athletic Hall of Fame as a player. Seven players and one coach have been inducted in the program’s rich history that has seen 545 players grace the pitch.
McLaughlin becomes the second Saint Ignatius coach to achieve 500 wins as he joins Pat O’Rourke ’90 in the 500 Club. Wednesday night also marked the Soccer program’s 700th win.