NORMAN — Here the Norman North boys are again, playing for another Class 6A state soccer championship, their second in two years and their third in four.
This season is different, but aren’t they all?
Unlike last season, the T-Wolves have lost this season. Unlike many other seasons, they have lost not once, but three times. Also, unlike so many other campaigns, one of those losses was to Norman High. Perhaps never have the Crosstown Clash rivals been so close, needing two shootouts to decide two games.
Also, it’s very much like other seasons.
At 1 p.m. today at Noble High School, North will go looking for its fifth state championship in Oklahoma’s largest high school class.
On the face of it, this season is thus far very much like 2000, 2003, 2010 and 2012, not to mention 2008, when the T-Wolves finished runner-up to Edmond Memorial.
North, 13-3, was ranked No. 5 the last time the Class 6A coaches bothered to vote. The opponent, Edmond North (one state title, 2004), is 14-2 and No. 1.
There is a desire to define the T-Wolves.
There is one clear star in Mauro Cichero, with his 22 goals in 16 games, the vast majority tallied since district play began. Also, it’s a team of seniors, 11 in all, many of whom became starters for the first time last season and only one of whom, Ashton Bray, played what might be considered a big role by the time he was a sophomore.
If there is one star, it goes to figure, there’s not a team of them, thus leaving a squad built on intangibles, like hard work and chemistry.
“We just work hard and everything goes our way,” senior forward Jonathan Newton said. “All the forwards work well together, all the midfielders work well together and the defense, so everything is just organized … The chemistry between the players is just phenomenal this year.”
So, there’s that.
On the other hand, the first thing coach Geo Claros said on the topic, prior to Thursday practice, was, “We’re talented enough to be there every year.”
Also, several players have already made arrangements to be playing college soccer in the fall. And many on the roster were big parts of last year’s state title, as first-year starters. They better have been talented to do that, right?
Go another direction.
It’s about the program.
North has won four state titles, played for another, and been among the state’s final four for 11 consecutive seasons. You play soccer for North, this is what happens.
“I think we’ve created an environment … We try to teach everyone,” Claros said. “We’ve tried to come up with a system that, hopefully, these guys are paying attention to. I mean, they’ve heard it so much, it should be second nature to them.”
The players feel the weight of expectation.
“We don’t want to come out here and just play. We want to win and be the best, and that’s kind of our attitude, even in Celtic,” senior defender Trent Laffoon said. “We’ve just been working. It builds up a competitive nature to where we want to work to the be the best.”
Curtis McRae, also a senior defender, concurs.
“There’s no question, we always have to come out and work our brains out and stuff,” he said. “We can’t settle for just one state championship because it’s our senior year. We can’t settle for anything.”
For a moment, Claros is one side. In the next, he’s on another. The program may demand greatness, but somebody’s got to deliver it.
“They’re a group that never got deterred. I’m pretty sure every one of them wanted to be on the team as a freshman and everyone expected to come in and play as a sophomore and it didn’t happen,” he said. “It didn’t knock them off course. They’re resilient. They stayed the course. They realized their time was going to come and when it did it would be a crucial situation, and they would have to step up big and they have.
“They’ve continued to work to get there, and (that’s) a lot of credit to them, because a lot of kids do get discouraged when they’re not given something immediately and quickly.”
If that’s the story of the past few seasons, it sounds like the story of this one, too. North fell to Broken Arrow and then to NHS. Two losses, back to back, offered uncharted territory.
“Some people started to lose faith in us,” Laffoon said, “and I think that’s pushed us to make a big comeback at the end of this year.”
How’d they do it?
With talent, maybe, not so much that they only have to take the field. With a work ethic the program demands but that players must still deliver. With “phenomenal” chemistry. Maybe with a chip on their shoulder, too.
Something like that.
“We just always have to keep it going,” McRae said.
North is at Noble today playing for a state championship.
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