The number 2013 is going to look awfully good on a banner.
Three years ago, when he was just getting started with the Oak Creek boys soccer team, Knights' coach Nick Thorne took the team into the gym to where the conference championship banners hang.
The ones for soccer, both boys and girls, he pointed out, were empty.
"I told them that that is something we have to fix," he said.
Consider it done. With victories over Racine Case (5-0) and Kenosha Indian Trail (3-0) last week, the Knights boys finished with a Southeast Conference record of 5-1-1, a full game ahead of Kenosha Tremper (4-2-1), and made history for Oak Creek soccer by earning the first title in school history.
"Being a road game (on Oct. 10 at Indian Trail) we really didn't have anything set up," said Thorne, "but we did manage a team picture and the guys did jump on top of one another....Later we went to Buffalo Wild Wings as a team and watched a soccer game (as a celebration)."
What else would a soccer team do?
A rocky road
Thorne wasn't sure if this was going to be the year for a conference crown for the Knights (11-7-2 overall). They had an opportunity last year, he said, but couldn't quite seal the deal, and furthermore they lost seven good seniors off that team.
"But a lot of teams in our league lost a lot of people, too," he said. "We didn't have huge hopes, and we actually thought we were rebuilding in a way."
But behind tri-captains seniors Christian Alfaro and Dylan Johnson and junior Jake West (all midfielders), the senior-laden Knights began to chip away and carve a winning edifice.
A fine series of midfielders was what Thorne called "a safety net."
It was a rocky road. After winning their first three games, Oak Creek hit a bumpy stretch, going 1-6-2 over its next nine games, including its only conference loss to arch rival Franklin (4-2) and a tie to another league foe, Racine Horlick (1-1).
"The beginning of the season, we were losing games we shouldn't have," Thorne said. "We were making dumb mistakes defensively; everyone was doing things on their own instead of acting like a team."
A 1-0 victory Sept. 17 against league opponent Kenosha Tremper broke the skid and started Oak Creek on its current run of seven wins in eight games.
"We definitely started playing more as a team, more for one another," said Thorne as the Knights adopted his possessing, attacking and goal-scoring style.
Seizing the opportunity
Southeast wins over Racine Park (3-1) and Kenosha Bradford (3-0) were included in the effort, which set up the past week's opportunity.
"I told the guys going into this week that this is the start of our playoffs," Thorne said. "Every game is the most important game. We weren't going to do what we did down the stretch last year."
They didn't. The Knights hit the youthful Case team hard Oct. 8, as Johnson scored twice in the first seven minutes to give Oak Creek the lead for good. Junior Luis Gonzales had both assists as the team cruised.
Then against Indian Trail, the Knights were a little sluggish, a little tense with a conference title at stake, but still sophomore midfielder Bryson Breugger and Johnson found the back of the net in the first half as the Knights surged ahead.
In the second half, Alfaro got the insurance goal as Oak Creek began to celebrate.
"It wasn't our best soccer," Thorne said. "We were pressing a little, doing a little too much one-on-one, but we got it done."
The 12 seniors who get to go out as conference champions include keeper Austin Harrison, forward/midfielder Esai Perez, defender Thomas Larson, midfielder Eddie Paez, defender Kaleb Sims, Johnson, forward/midfielder Eddie Jimenez, Alfaro, midfielder Tujntsuj Yang, midfielder Evan Kiefer, keeper James Feffer and defender Henry Tran.
With the big goal now safely accomplished and to be written upon a banner in the school gym, the Knights turn their attention to WIAA tourney play. Their half of the Division I Kenosha Tremper sectional is essentially a Southeast Conference tournament. They earned the second seed and played Indian Trail again Tuesday in a regional semifinal.
If they won that, they would host a regional final Oct. 17 against the winner of Racine Case and Racine Horlick. Sectional semifinals are on Oct. 24 as Kenosha Tremper claimed the top seed in this half of the bracket.
Defending state champion Marquette is the overall top seed in the sectional.
Thorne said the Knights lost an ugly tournament game to Marquette to end its season in 2012 and would like a chance to play better, which is something they already have accomplished this season.
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