By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — It’s easy to become used to the Norman North boys’ dominance on the soccer field. It’s so easy that it becomes easy to forget the Timberwolves’ season only recently turned dominant, and a lot of good it did them Tuesday night against Norman High, when North had to go 12 kickers deep to finally win a shootout for the ages.
But that’s how the T-Wolves escaped the Tigers, winning by an official count of 2-1, thereby earning the right to play at 7 tonight, against Owasso on the Rams’ home pitch, the winner to meet the winner of Edmond North and Union for the Class 6A state championship.
If North gets there, it will not only be playing for a second straight state title and a third in four seasons, but it will also have continued a season-long storyline of resiliency, for it’s a season that has included obstacles many bunches of former T-Wolves have not had to traverse.
For one (or two or three), there have been losses.
Broken Arrow topped North in a shootout, then NHS did the same in the T-Wolves’ very next game. That required the ship first being righted, and it was, with a huge 4-0 victory over Edmond Memorial, North’s district opener.
Then came at trip to the Southern Soccer Challenge, where North won twice before losing another shootout, to Memphis University Boys Prep School.
The T-Wolves had to respond from there in district play, playing three games in five days after returning from Huntsville, Ala., the first three of an eight-game winning streak that remains ongoing.
Now, facing the Rams, North must deal with the loss of two starters: center midfielder Cole Johnson to a torn ACL, suffered against Norman High, and outside defender Matt Gann to mononucleosis.
Good for the T-Wolves, overcoming has become their thing this season.
“It’s definitely been a resilient team. It hasn’t been easy,” coach Geo Claros said. “We’ll have to have people step up that haven’t been our usual guys, but that’s why we’re a team … We try to count on all 22 in some capacity.”
It’s worth noting that North claimed a state title last season almost without Matt Ward, a senior starter who played only a few short title-game minutes with his arm in a sling; without Johnson, who suffered a broken ankle; and about half the championship game without Mauro Cichero, who broke his nose in the final.
There’s also the fact the T-Wolves adjusted this season, particularly after coming back from Alabama, when Claros opted to take a quieter tone only to watch his team explode offensively.
“They responded,” Claros said. “There are still moments where we’re going to want to get better out of them, but I think they put the ball in their court to really play a lot better and asked more of themselves down the stretch for sure.”
Prior to meeting U.S. Grant April 8, North had scored at least four goals only once in its previous eight games. Beginning with their victory over the Generals, the T-Wolves have scored at least four in every game — a stretch of six wins — until meeting NHS Tuesday.
“There was kind of a moment where he calmed down on the yelling,” senior defender Ashton Bray said of Claros. “He didn’t stop telling us what to do, it was just kind of the way he went about telling us what to do.”
Bray’s not sure it had anything to do with North’s rise, but admitted the timing could lead one to believe as much. Cichero, who leads North with 20 goals, believes it made a difference.
“He kind of backed off, gave us our space and I think that helped us a lot and gave us more confidence,” he said. “You don’t want to be yelled at every single time you make a mistake.”
Monday, as North began practice, Claros calmly went through mistakes the T-Wolves made in the second half against NHS, a half NHS clearly got the best of, eventually scoring to force overtime.
Adjustments may be in order.
This season, yet again playing to reach the state title game, the T-Wolves know all about making the changes required to keep moving forward.
“The trials that we’ve gone through,” Claros said, “we’ve learned from them.”
Follow me @clayhorning