ELYRIA — In recent years, late October in Elyria usually brings three things — falling leaves, a gaggle of children at doorsteps yelling, “Trick or Treat” and Elyria Catholic winning the girls soccer district championship.
The Panthers won their third consecutive Division III district title last week, earning the right to face Youngstown Cardinal Mooney tonight at Nordonia High School in the regional semifinals.
Two years ago, Elyria Catholic became the first Lorain County school to win a district title in the newly created Division III. A year later it became the first girls program in the county to advance to the regional finals. Now, the Panthers hope the next step is the state tournament.
Elyria Catholic’s three senior captains — McKenzie Rozanc, Danielle Dziak and Kat Newman — have had a front-row seat to watch the Panthers program go from also-ran to perennial power.
“It’s a bit surreal to think about the past three years. I really never expected this to happen,” Dziak said. “My freshman year we would lose on a regular basis and it really wasn’t a big deal. Now every loss is a huge deal.”
After three consecutive seasons under .500, the Panthers went 14-4-2 in 2011 before losing to Laurel in the regional semifinals. Last year’s team went 14-3-4, coming within a match of the state tourney by losing to Hawken 4-1 in the regional finals. This year’s Elyria Catholic team enters regional play with a record of 13-3-3.
“The past three years have been a great experience for us,” Rozanc said. “We’ve worked hard to have the success we’ve had and we’re really grateful for what we have accomplished. This year’s team has grown really close because so many of us know any game could be the last game we play together.”
With just a few more practices left in the season, Rozanc thinks mental toughness, more than tactical preparation, will be the key to success.
“We just need to keep playing hard and believe in ourselves that we can do what we know we can do, which is to go to states,” she said. “There are still a lot of nerves but we should be more confident because we have experienced this level of soccer before.”
In his four years at the helm Panthers coach Tony Rozanc, McKenzie’s father, has seen the program grow from just 30 girls between JV and varsity to a full varsity roster of 22 girls that are ready to contribute at key moments.
“This year’s team has a lot more depth than we’ve had in previous years,” Newman said. “We don’t have one pin-point player, we are confident that anybody on the field will play well.
“Each district championship team has been different. This year, I think we were a little more confident, but it was also more satisfying for me because it’s my senior year and its means so much to have gone through this three times with some of the same girls and also to see the satisfaction and excitement on the faces of the girls who were experiencing it for the first time.”
Over the past three seasons the Panthers have developed into a close-knit group and coach Rozanc said many of the team’s rituals and traditions have taken on almost as much importance as wins and losses.
“We’ve tried to keep the same routines over the years, coming out to the Soccerplex to practice on the turf and the team dinners before the games,” he said. “The girls were asking me for weeks when we were going to the Soccerplex. With each step we take, there are things they look forward to. It’s not just the games, but it’s everything else that builds up to it.”
While dinners and camaraderie are nice, make no mistake, the Elyria Catholic players want to be the last ones standing at the end of the state tourney.
The Panthers are definitely taking it one game at a time, but Dziak said she has allowed herself a moment to dream about what it would be like if Elyria Catholic won the state title.
“I’ve thought about it but I don’t even know to describe the feeling,” she said. “That is a dream every athlete has, to go to state. As important as soccer is to all of us, though, I think I value the relationships I’ve built with my teammates above anything else.”
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Division III girls
Elyria Catholic (13-3-3) vs. Youngstown Cardinal Mooney (12-6-1)
WHEN: Tonight, 7 o’clock
WHERE: Nordonia High School, 8006 S. Bedford Rd., Macedonia.
AT STAKE: A berth in Saturday’s Division III regional final against the winner of the Hawken — Warren Champion match.
DIRECTIONS: Take I-480 East to I-271 south. Exit at SR 82 (exit 19). Turn left on SR 82, take the first right onto S. Bedford Rd.
ELYRIA CATHOLIC PANTHERS
COLORS: Green and White
GIRLS ENROLLMENT: 165
CONFERENCE: West Shore Conference
COACH: Tony Rozanc
LAST REGIONAL APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Hawken, 4-1, in the regional final.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Defeated Columbia 8-0 in the sectional final. Defeated Lutheran West 5-1 in district semifinal and defeated Wellington 4-0 to win Rocky River district championship.
FAST FACT: Elyria Catholic has advanced to the Division III regional tournament every year since the OHSAA went to three divisions in girls soccer in 2011. Last season the Panthers became the first girls program in Lorain County to play in a regional final.
TOP PLAYERS: Andi Widmer, who had a hat trick in the Panthers district final win, leads the team with 10 goals. Injuries limited Jenna Ellingson to seven goals and eight assists but she is still among the top scoring threats on the field. Danielle Dziak, Meliah Roman and Jenna Smith were among the top goal scorers for Elyria Catholic this season. Freshman goalkeeper Stevie Holbrook has two postseason shutouts.
CARDINAL MOONEY CARDINALS
COLORS: Red and Gold
GIRLS ENROLLMENT: 188
COACH: Frank Sikich
LAST REGIONAL APPEARANCE: 2010; lost to Chagrin Falls 3-0 in the Division II regional semifinal.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Defeated Youngstown Christian 11-3 in the sectional final. Defeated Columbiana 8-4 in the district semifinal and defeated United 5-1 to win the Austintown district championship.
FAST FACT: The Cardinals are 11-0-1 in their last 12 matches. Cardinal Mooney has advanced to the district finals each of the past four seasons, going 2-2 in those games.
TOP PLAYERS: Junior Julie Vazquez leads the Cardinals with 28 goals. Elizabeth Philibin (21), Lexy Herman (16) and Taylor Sikich (10) all scored 10 or more goals for a Cardinal Mooney team that has averaged over six goals a game over the final month of the season.
SCOUTING REPORT: Elyria Catholic is a veteran tournament-tested team that should have what it takes to get past the Cardinals. If the Panthers can get off to another quick start, they have scored in the opening minute of their last two matches, they will take some of the pressure off of freshman goalkeeper Stevie Holbrook. A win would set up a potential regional final rematch with Hawken, Cardinal Mooney has a potent offense that scored 89 goals this season and averaged eight goals a match in the district tournament.