By Kyle Daubs

“Toughest Team Ever” Defines 2003 State Qualifying MHS Boys Soccer Team

Select any senior from the 2003 MHS boys soccer team, and they will tell you that they wanted a ring.

When Ryan Ghere took over the program, a talented group of seventh-graders watched their coach grind through a 0-19-2 season. Six years later, that group wanted to go to state and get those rings.

“Those kids watched us win six games in three years,” said Ghere. “They said if we go to the state, we are going to get rings. Those guys had confidence in themselves as seventh-graders all the way to twelfth grade. When we made it to state, every single one of them got a ring.”

Mattoon was coming off a 2002 season in which the team finished 13-7-4. Eight seniors graduated from that team, including Tyler Moran who went on to Millikin after setting a then-school record of 24 goals.

However, the Wave brought back 12 seniors. That put the pressure on seniors Michael Glosser and Tyler Sage, as well as sophomore Troy Lane, to score goals. Seniors Alex Hesse, Jacob Kimery, Maurice Mathis, Alex McLuckey, and Jarrin Bates could play the midfield and contribute.

As for the defense, former all-conference position player Marcus McDowell was moved to goalie. Andrew Age, Scott Barber, Tyler Ferguson, Tyson Sledge, and Cory Stabler made up the defensive front.

“We went into that season with big expectations,” said Sledge. “Having twelve seniors and eleven of them probably being starters, we knew we had a good core. We had been playing with each other since we were seven, eight years old.”

Mattoon opened up the season with 1-1 ties to Champaign Central and Teutotoplis at the Charleston Red & Gold Tournament. The next day, Mattoon scored three goals in the final 4 minutes, 37 seconds to defeat Olney 4-1.

“We had a slow start to the season,” said Kimery. “Had we played up to our potential, we would have won all three games.”

Sage made the all-tournament team after four goals as did Kimery and Ferguson. After finishing the tournament 1-0-2, Mattoon had to face a Charleston team coming off three straight trips to the state tournament.

Even though then-career leader in goals Curt Hinds had departed for Vanderbilt University, the Trojans still featured a dangerous team. Four different players scored in a 4-2 Trojans victory.

Eleven minutes into the game Chris Pence scored a goal on the right side. McDowell tried to save it, but ran into the bar, which forced him to leave the game temporarily. Ferguson tied the game with 11 minutes let in the first half, but nearly 32 seconds later Pence connected with Steven Bower to score. It was an intense game that netted Glosser a red card, an ejection and a one-game suspension.

“I’m pretty sure I grabbed Obia by the jersey and threw him down and said something stupid,” said Glosser. “Charleston was so good at soccer. I wasn’t friends with those guys at the time. When it came to Charleston, I was coming for you. I’d do anything to win or make you remember me. It was a physical game. They chirped. We chirped. I just wanted to beat them.”

McDowell eventually returned with 24 minutes left and Glosser added another goal, but two goals from Uzo Obia and Ryan McDermand solidified the win. McDermand’s goal was his 15th in six games at the time.

“We played club with them in the offseason,” said Kimery. “We knew how well they played together. It was tough because in the offseason you knew what we had to go up against in the regular season.”

After the loss to Charleston, Mattoon started to find winning ways. That started with a revenge 3-1 win over Champaign Central. Lane scored two goals in the second half. Mattoon followed that with a win over Olney in which Sage and Lane led the scoring again, while McDowell recorded his third shutout in three games.

Mattoon then erupted with an 11-2 win in which Glosser had four goals, while Kimery added three assists. Mattoon also added a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Bloomington in which the Wave trailed 1-0 at halftime.

Mattoon was 3-3-1 in the Big 12 Conference. After a loss to Normal Community, Ghere credited Mattoon with playing “really good soccer.”

“If you didn’t bring your ‘A’ game every single night, you were in trouble,” said Ghere. “There were no bad teams in the Big 12. When we moved to Apollo, the biggest difference the kids realized was how much more physical the teams in the Big 12 were. When you play 10-11 games like they do, it can beat you up. I’ve been lucky to coach some teams that probably had more skill. That 2003 team was the toughest group of kids I have ever coached.”

After a 4-2 win over Effingham St. Anthony, Mattoon rolled into the Mattoon Invitational as the favorite. The first round featured a 4-0 win over Teutopolis and then Mattoon shut out Effingham and Sullivan 2-0 to claim the title.

Ghere told JG-TC reporter Rick Dawson that Ferguson, Sledge, Barber, Age, and McLuckey “don’t get a lot of print,” but they made McDowell’s job easier.

“Oh man, they made my life so much easier,” said McDowell. “Guys like Tyler and Tyson at stopper and sweeper just made it easy. I trusted my defense. Every corner. Every breakaway. I knew I had defenders in front of me that had me covered.”

The Wave followed the tourney title with a 7-0 win over Decatur Eisenhower, which was the team’s fourth consecutive shutout. That followed with a wild 4-3 win over Altamont.

Altamont led 2-0 in the opening minutes, but Mattoon roared back. Sage scored two goals to tie the game 2-2 at halftime. Altamont retook the lead, but Ferguson scored a penalty kick five minutes later. Glosser scored the game-winning goal on an assist from Sage.

“It was pouring rain and, by the time we started playing on that field, it was just a giant mud puddle,” said Kimery. “The ball was skipping all over the place. The first goal Marcus allowed he didn’t even have a chance. It looked bad, but the ball skipped really bad. It was like a catcher catching a curveball when you weren’t ready for it. We knew we were the better team. Ghere gave us a good halftime speech. He took us three-quarters of a mile from the field, so he could really enforce what he wanted us to hear.”

Ghere can give a great halftime speech. Over the last 22 years, fans know Ghere is vocal on the sidelines. When it came to the huddle, it was on another level.

“He would take you 500 yards away from the field, so parents couldn’t turn him in and get him fired,” said Glosser. “But, we respected him for that.”

When it came to practice, it was not different. Glosser, Kimery and Sage all remember a time when their head coach kicked the team out of practice for a lack of focus.

“Ryan Ghere was a great coach and I think he knew he had something special in us,” said Sage. “He had a short temper at times. We probably needed it to drive us and push ourselves. Our conditioning was up to par because we did our fair share of it at practice.”

However, nobody from the team took it personally. Instead, the team just kept getting closer.

“He left the soccer shed unlocked, so we ended up getting the balls out and went over to Kinzel Field and had our own practice to stay loose,” said Kimery. “That’s one thing that sticks out: just the unit we were. We were all pretty close. We knew how to have a good time, maybe too often, but we knew how to turn it off when it got serious.”

The game with Altamont was a prequel to what Ghere called the “biggest win for the program in six years.” Champaign Centennial, the Big 12 powerhouse at the time, entered Mattoon with a 16-1-3 overall record. Mattoon trailed 2-1 at halftime, but Glosser tied the game in the second half. Sage scored his 24th goal of the season to give the Wave the win.

“I remember how amped up we were to play them,” said Sage. “They were really good, but we felt we could play with anyone with the talent we had. I remember I scored on a cross and probably got away with a handball. The ball came in and went off my hand, and I just put it in.” Sometimes, that’s just how the game works.”

Mattoon closed out the season in the upper tier of the Big 12 Conference. On Senior Night, the Wave tied St. Teresa even though the Bulldogs outshot Mattoon, 28-15. St. Teresa coach Leo Berger called the game a “goalie war.” However, Sage broke the single-season record for goals with his 25th.

Mattoon ended the regular season 13-5-4 after a 1-0 loss to Decatur McArthur in the final regular-season game. As the Wave headed into the postseason, the team escaped having to play powerhouse Charleston in the Regional as the team hosted the Mattoon Regional. Instead, Mattoon headed into the postseason with St. Anthony, Teutopolis, and Monticello.

Ghere told Dawson, “I think we’re going into it thinking we’ve got a good chance of winning this Regional. We’re the highest seed and we’re coming in as the favorite, so we would be disappointed if we didn’t win it.”

Mattoon started off by “squeaking past Effingham St. Anthony” as Ghere phrased it back then. After beating St. Anthony 4-2 and 3-0 in the regular season, this matchup was much harder –– 26 shots were fired in the final 30 minutes. With 17:10 left in the game, Tyson Sledge delivered the game-winner. Teuotpolis beat Monticello 3-0 to make the championship.

The Regional Championship was a heated game. Sage, the team’s leading goal scorer, received a red card, was ejected and left Mattoon playing 10 versus 11. Andew Age told JG-TC sports editor Brian Nielsen that the ejection made Mattoon “step it up to a whole other level.”

“I let the emotion get the best of me,” said Sage. “I played with a lot of drive and desire. I really wanted that game. I felt like there were a lot of fouls not being called. It was a very physical game back and forth. I made a stupid foul and it cost me.”

At halftime, Ghere was cited that the team talked about handling their composure, but with 33:10 left in the second half, red and yellow cards were flying. Even though Mattoon was down a man, the wave rattled off two goals, including a goal from defender Age, while preserving the shutout. Age told Nielsen “we didn’t want them to score after that.”

The Wave were off to Sectional play with Judah Christian, who was 18-1-0 at the time. Mattoon played comeback kids once again. After trailing 1-0 in the first half, Mattoon defeated Judah Christian, 2-1.

Lane, who was starting in the place of the suspended Sage, used a rebound off a defender to tie the score, 1-1. Then, the unlikeliest of heroes saved the game. After McDowell was issued a yellow card, it forced Kimery in goal and Ghere subbed junior defender Cory Stabler.

When McDowell came back, Ghere left Stabler on the field. With 7:25 left in the game, Hesse floated a ball up and Stabler ran straight down the middle and landed a foot on it. Stabler detailed the events to the JG-TC’s Erik Hall.

“I was just thinking, ‘look down on the ball and hit it solid into the goal and try not to place it anywhere,” said Stabler to Hall. “All year, I’ve blown them over in practice and stuff because this is my first year, but I just tried to stay square and hit it in.”

That meant the Sectional Championship featured Mattoon and Charleston. The Trojabns had an overwhelming offense with McDermand, who had 52 goals, Obia with 26 goals, and playmaker Steven Bower with 20 assists. Before the sectional, Charleston had scored 130 goals, while allowing just 25.

However, that didn’t frighten Mattoon.

“Of course, I think we could beat Charleston,” Stabler told Hall. “They’re beatable. We played them once and they gave us a run for our money, but I think their morale is kind of down a little. That’s the big thing we’ve been basing most of our things off of is that we beat Centennial and Charleston’s been beaten four or five times since beating us.”

Normally, the bus ride over to games was quiet as the team prepared mentally. However, this bus ride was different. The team was considered “loose” and it was a little bit louder on the way over.

“I just remember Michael Glosser getting us pumped up,” said Kimery. “We had a lot of good leaders on the team. We were syncing with each other that game. I think that us playing Charleston was a perfect storm. I don’t know if it was calming, but it was surreal going into that moment. Charleston had a bunch of guys we considered friends and guys we played with year-round. You live to play all year around for all those years for that exact moment.”

Glosser remembers the bus ride over to Mahomet, citing that was one of the best bus rides ever.

“We used to bring boom boxes and scream ‘you don’t wanna go to war with us,” said Glosser. “We were just brainwashing ourselves before the big game. We were all super competitive. The mind is a powerful thing. We were mentally gelling before the game. We were here to ride or die together.”

According to Glosser, Ghere didn’t even get a chance to talk to the team before the game started.

“I kicked him out of the huddle and told him ‘I got this,” said Glosser. “I got in the huddle and said you guys want to be sitting on the toilet reading about how Charleston beat you and listen to the fire trucks parading around?”

Charleston held a 1-0 lead at halftime after Steven Bower headed in a pass from Collin Wallace at the 20:50 mark. Hesse cited a “really good halftime speech by Ghere,” while some of the seniors topped off the speech as they returned to the field.

“I remember going onto the field in the second half and one of the seniors asked, ‘Is this our last half of soccer ever,” said Kimery. “Do we go out losing to our biggest rival? Are we going to lose to a group of guys we play club with? Are they getting the last laugh? We knew we could play with them if we just completed a 40-minute half.”

In the second half, Dawson called the Trojans “starstruck” when Kimery found a loose ball and tied the game with 19:09 left in the game. Lane had flashed in front of goalie Kyle Wilson and Kimery took advantage of the confusion.

Hesse scored the go-ahead goal with 8:14 left in the game on a throw-in from Maurice Mathis.

“That was a special goal,” said Sage. “Alex’s grandma passed away a week before that game. A lot of us from the team showed up to the funeral to show our support. We just thought that was a really special moment for him.”

Going into that game, both McDermand and Obia had combined for 79 of the team’s 130 goals. In this game, both were held silent. According to Dawson, the final 8:14 were a “blur” for Ghere, yet it lasted an “eternity.”

“The last eight minutes we essentially played a triangle defense,” said Kimery. “We went from two offensive center mids and a stopper to two stoppers and one offenisve mid. Tyson and I man-marked McDermand and Obia. They were both so dangerous. Ryan with his ball handling skills and Obia with his speed. We just did everything we could to keep the ball away from them.”

Charleston had two shots in the final four minutes. Andrew Cudone missed a shot wide of the goal. Steven Ziebka missed a shot with two minutes left. At one point, McDermand was so visibly frustrated that he lost the ball out of bounds while dribbling. 

“I agree with Ghere. That last stretch was a blur,” said McDowell. “I just remember asking myself ‘Are we going to pull it off?’ Can we do it? The last 10 seconds with the crowd was an unbelievable feeling. It gives me chills to think about it now.”

As great as the win was, it still came as a shock. With three days before the Elite Eight, Mattoon didn’t have a bus. However, after their win over Charleston, a spot opened up.

“By far the best memory was when we heard Charleston had already booked a bus to state and their coach had to cancel their reservation,” said Glosser. “Ghere said they cancelled their bus and we got it. I’ll never forget that.”

In one of Illinois’ longest rivalries, it certainly provided the cherry on top.

“I hated Charleston back then,” said Glosser. “It sounds bad, but that rivalry led to some serious competition. I used to get kicked out of basketball games all the time. I wasn’t friends with a lot of those guys because I didn’t play club soccer. When I went to college, I became best friends with a lot of them. The competition was real and still is today. The first thing I’m going to do is call Ryan McDermand up and bring it up.”

Even with the friendly banter, there will always be a deep feeling of respect.

“I have the utmost respect for Coach Stranz. He is Charleston soccer in my opinion,” added McDowell. “But I hated Charleston, too. Nothing was better than beating them and taking their charter bus to go to state.”

The Elite Eight matchup was a tough task. Mattoon was paired with Arlington Heights St. Viator, who entered the contest with a 19-1-4 record. They were hungry for a Final Four berth after a 2002 season in which they lost despite outscoring their opponent 27-2 in the game.

Their defense had allowed 13 goals in 25 games and had a defender, TJ King, who was committed to Marquette. According to Nielsen, St. Viator was the No. 1 ranked team in the state according to the Chicago Tribune.

“I remember we got to the field and Peoria Notre Dame is in the stands chanting ‘Jesus loves us’ and slapping their legs in tune” said Sledge. “St. Viator shows up and every single one of them has bleached blonde hair. They are standing in military formation and singing ‘would you be my girl?’ I’m sitting there thinking we just bit off more than we could chew.”

Due to three straight overtime games, the match didn’t start until after 8:30 p.m. However, everyone in the stadium was wide awake when Mattoon took an early 1-0 lead after a goal from Kimery.

“I still have that picture of Jacob scoring that goal in my basement,” said Ghere. “It got everybody believing.”

That goal was extra special because going into the Elite Eight, St. Viator had not allowed a single goal in the postseason.

“Going into that game, we had a mindset that we were writing our own story,” said Glosser. “Every sport I have ever played in the goal was to get to state, win state. Mattoon soccer had never been successful at that. We had a team that really came together and a coach that was pretty hard on us. When we took that lead, I just remember asking myself: Are we still writing this story? Could this really happen?”

However, the Cinderella story ended quickly. St. Viator roared back to take a 2-1 lead at halftime. Then, with 15:30 left in the game, St. Viator converted a corner kick and ended all hopes of a comeback with their fourth goal just 30 seconds later to take the 4-1 final score.

“We went into that game thinking we shouldn’t even be here,” said McDowell. “Everybody was on a high when we got there. When we scored a goal, we were thinking this is fun. This is interesting. We just scored a goal on the No. 1 ranked team in the state. Then, it was almost like they opened up their eyes. They stepped up and just hats off to them because they were an exceptional team.”

At the time, IHSA played just a two-class system. The IHSA did not implement a three-class system until 2008. As of today, McDowell holds the record for most saves in a state final match for Class A with 18 saves. St. Viator’s 34 shots and 23 goals on goal are also a state record.

“Marcus was incredible that game,” said Ghere. “He saved shot after shot.”

At the end of the season, McDowell, Sage, Ferguson, and Sledge were named First Team All-Big 12, while Kimery was Honorable Mention Big 12. The only MHS soccer team to qualify for the state tournament was likely the most improbable team.

Since Ghere has taken over the MHS boys’ soccer program in 1998, he has built the team into a contender. In a span of 22-years, Ghere owns a career record of 261-199-50.

Over that span, Mattoon has finished with a 22-1-0 team in 2016, and back-to-back 21-2-3 seasons in 2018 and 2019. However, Mattoon’s 17-6-4 season in 2003 proved to be extra special.

“I’ve had the luxury of coaching some really good teams,” said Ghere. “That was a great team from top to bottom. They were such a great group of kids. They were so soccer smart, too. What makes them stand out is that they were so competitive. We would have fights in practice all the time. Glosser would fight Sledge. Sage would fight someone else. That’s what made them so old school. They would do anything to win and they wanted to win everything they did. However, at the end of the day, they are as close knit as any team I have ever coached.”