Downers Grove South's magic 2004-05 season
By Gary Larsen
Five years ago today one of the most heart-stopping moments the state title game has ever seen occurred. It’s captured on a 27-second piece of game tape from the 2004 title game between Buffalo Grove and Downers Grove South.
“Even now, when I watch that play, I cringe,” Mike McCormack said. “It was so close and the timing of it was so critical.”
With only seconds left in a scoreless state title game on November 6, 2004, Buffalo Grove had a throw-in deep in Downers Grove territory. The ball was flicked and came down six yards out from the near post, where a Buffalo Grove player stepped forward and hammered a head shot that by all rights should have given the Bison a state title.
That’s when DG South’s Kevin Harrigan kicked down the castle door and saved the maiden. Standing on the goal line, Harrigan flicked the shot over the crossbar on a bang-bang play that really has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Watch it by clicking here
Mustangs defender Anthony Marchese was standing next to Harrigan on the play. “I remember looking over at him after he did it,” Marchese said. “He had the biggest look of shock on his face – like ‘holy crap, did I just do that’?”
Mustangs’ goalkeeper Jason Curry hugged Harrigan in gratitude and then you can see Harrigan walking out of the video frame holding his head in his hands.
The great secret of that play is finally out: Harrigan left his man and drifted to the goal line on the play. “It was my man that shot it,” Harrigan said. “So I was really just saving my own butt.”
“Sometimes when we talk about it today, it’ll be like ‘man, we almost lost that game’,” McCormack said. “And everything after that would have been different.”
Regulation ended and DG South coach Jon Stapleton gathered his troops together before sending them off into overtime. He quickly addressed Harrigan’s miraculous, season-saving play.
“I said ‘guys, that does not happen unless it’s meant to be’,” Stapleton said. “I told them to get out there, finish it, and we’ll celebrate like we never have.”
The regular season
Downers Grove South opened the season in 2004 with a 4-0 win over Fremd, followed by convincing wins over Brother Rice, Hersey, and Hinsdale South as part of Hinsdale Central’s Red Devil Cup.
Then the Mustangs took on host Hinsdale Central. The Red Devils were stacked that season, one of the great collections of individual talent seen at the high school level.
Jack Smithson, Peter Grasso, Patrick Sperry, Matt Tutich, and Lawrence DeGeest helped make up a powerhouse Central squad that opened the season ranked No. 1 by the Chicago Tribune. Downers Grove South was ranked second.
The Chicago Sun-Times had Hinsdale Central ranked No. 2 in its preseason rankings, with the Mustangs ranked No. 1. “It was us and them,” Marchese said. “And they were really good.”
Central beat South in a shootout for the tournament title, and essentially took over the top spot in the rankings for the remainder of the regular season, earning a high national ranking along the way.
“They had such a great year, going undefeated through the season, and that probably allowed us to hang back a little bit,” Stapleton said. “That unbeaten streak they were on drew a lot of attention.”
The Mustangs stayed up high in the rankings, but the regular-season spotlight shined brightest on the Red Devils that year.
“We were sort of flying under the radar,” said Alex Jones, a South junior that season. “But after that loss, from that moment forward, we had revenge on our minds.”
Stapleton knew he had a good team heading into the 2004-’05 season. He had a quick, scrappy forward in McCormack and a pair of top-shelf central midfielders in Jones and Andrew Lichaj. A rock-solid defense featured Harrigan, Marchese, Jim Azriel, and Kyle Petricek playing flat in back, and a top-shelf keeper in Curry in net.
Midfielders Scott Crider and Bryant Williams did most of the lunch bucket work on the outside, and Lukasz Masolak had exceptional skill up top to complement McCormack.
The pieces were there. The game against Hinsdale Central showed Stapleton that his boys had potential, and they followed with a 4-1 over Morton. South then hit the road for its annual trek to one of the best regional tournaments around, the Great Midwest Classic in Indianapolis.
“That was the tournament that we’d always go to and get blown out by every team there,” Curry said. “We always went into the game against Chaminade laughing about what the final score would be.”
The Mustangs beat Missouri state power Chaminade 2-1 and then tied 1-1 against California power Jesuit High School to reach the title game against North Central of Indiana. From 2000 to 2006, North Central won two Indiana state titles and was runner-up twice.
The Mustangs beat North Central 1-0 to win the Classic title. “That was probably the best we played in a game all season,” Stapleton said. “There were times during that game that I was watching almost in amazement. After we won that tournament, on the bus ride home, I knew we had something special.”
The Mustangs were 7-1-1 and had earned a 25 to 6 scoring edge over their first 9 opponents.
The coach and the middle third
After a win over West Aurora, the Mustangs opened the middle third of their season by cruising to West Suburban Gold wins over Proviso East and Willowbrook. They won non-conference games against Naperville North, Benet, and Downers Grove North before blanking conference foe Hinsdale South 6-0.
During this stretch of play, South was up 8-0 at halftime of one of their home games. The mood in the locker room during the break was predictably light before Stapleton barged in and let them have it.
“He came into the room yelling that No. 4 was killing us,” Marchese said. “And the locker room got real quiet.”
“He was screaming at us,” Curry said. “We were in there having a great time, breezing through this game, and we thought ‘is he really mad?’”
He wasn’t. Stapleton kept up the charade for as long as he could before cracking a smile. “That was one of my favorite moments of the whole season,” Marchese said.
Stapleton was in his third year as head coach at Downers Grove South, after taking over when Mike Wiggins left South for Hinsdale Central. Five years later, Stapleton’s former players are consistent in their view of their former coach.
“We all knew he was a great coach, we all respected him, and at the same time we could goof around with him,” Curry said. “He kept it at the perfect balance between being buddy-buddy, but I’m still your coach. And you felt like you couldn’t let the guy down.”
“He’ll joke with you but when it’s time to be serious he just emits that it’s time to be serious,” Marchese said. “And everybody listened.”
If you’ve been around Stapleton at all, you know he's one of those people that sort of quietly exudes integrity.
“He kept us grounded, and I think that he was able to command respect without even asking, just by the way he carries himself,” Jones said.
Jones put a scare into the entire program that year. He left the Morton game on September 7 with pains in his chest and by September 22 he was in surgery to repair a hole in his diaphragm that had been there since birth.
Being airlifted to Loyola Medical Center for emergency surgery is never in anyone’s season plans. “My spleen was bleeding internally,” Jones said. “They stapled me up and I was in the hospital for four or five days.”
Jones lost 17 pounds in the ensuing weeks but his outlook for recovery was bright.
“I remember being in the hospital with him and thinking that if there was one kid that would be able to come back from that, it was Alex Jones,” Stapleton said. “He was just a tough kid.”
Jones returned a month after surgery in time for the regional opener against Argo. He finished the season with 11 goals, second behind McCormack.
“The thing I remember is that we missed him a lot on the field. Man, he was just an amazing player,” Marchese said. “You could really tell when he wasn’t in the game. It was his mentality. He brought the effort and everyone would follow.”
With an overall mark of 15-1-1 and a conference mark of 4-0, the team took on Leyden and had a rare bad day. The Mustangs lost 2-1 in the only game all year in which they gave up more than a single goal.
“McCormack couldn’t score,” Curry said of the Leyden loss. “If he ever had an off-night, which was rare, we were in trouble. And I remember a horrible miscommunication between me and Harrigan in the back. I remember breaking something in my car on the ride home after that game.”
South rebounded with shutouts of Lemont, Deerfield, York, and Naperville Central in their final four regular-season games.
“They had a great forward, a great outside defender, and a bunch of great athletes who were well-coached,” Naperville Central coach Jay Konrad said of that year’s Mustangs. “A team with that make-up can beat any soccer team, no matter how good it is.”
The Mustangs were on a collision course with Hinsdale Central, where in a sectional title game they’d test whether Konrad’s words were true.
South opened the postseason with shutouts of Argo and Lyons Township. South’s back line had quietly dominated the regular season, but while Curry and his shutouts got some press, Harrigan, Marchese, Petricek, and Azriel were rarely given much attention.
“The guys who get interviewed are the guys who score the goals,” Marchese said. “We’d joke about how we never got interviewed.”
In addition to being one of the state’s top defenders, Harrigan was also an offensive force on the outside that year, bullying his way up the field with reckless abandon. The left-footed senior served the ball so well to the far post on those runs that he ended up leading the team with 15 assists.
“Whenever Jason would make a save, Kevin would bust out. Jason always looked left first,” Stapleton said. “He read the game so well and he knew when to push forward. He’d make those overlapping runs and Scott Crider would just fall back and let him go.”
Harrigan was undeniably one of South’s marquee names that year. The team’s other marquee field player was also busy, posting clutch postseason performances with a consistency that was downright ridiculous.
McCormack nearly didn’t play in the sectional semifinal against Neuqua Valley, after his ankle got stomped on at the end of the win over Lyons. It was black, blue, and swollen, two days before the Neuqua game.
“We had a conversation the night before the game and he told me he wasn’t sure if he would be able to go,” Stapleton said. “I told him how much it would help us if he just stepped on the field and made the team believe he was going to be out there. Not only did he step on the field, he scored the game-winner.”
McCormack’s value to the Mustangs that year can’t be overstated. Of the last 10 state champion teams in Illinois’ largest class, only Edwardsville’s Luke Kreamalmeyer in 2000 accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s scoring than McCormack did for South in 2004.
Both teams scored 90 goals in their respective title-winning seasons; Kreamalmeyer scored 38 of Edwardsville’s goals, while McCormack scored 34 for the Mustangs.
“I haven’t seen a kid turn it on for a senior year like McCormack did that year,” Naperville North coach Jim Konrad said. “He just found ways to score and score and score -- big goals, all the time.”
McCormack went on one of the great postseason scoring sprees you’ll ever see, scoring 9 goals in 7 state playoff games to end the year.
“Mike could score a lot of different ways, and most of the ways he scored that year were pretty unbelievable,” Marchese said. “He was so quick and he kept the ball so close to his feet, and that’s very hard to defend.”
“He just needed a little bit of space to finish a ball,” Stapleton said. “And he may have only had two or three opportunities to finish in a game, but when they occurred he converted them.”
“He was a special player and what he accomplished in those seven games was amazing.”
The win over Neuqua advanced South to the long-awaited rematch against Hinsdale Central, with a state title berth on the line.
The unbeaten Red Devils and coach Mike Wiggins – former coach and player for Downers Grove South – had a tall order to fill if they wanted to knock off the Mustangs in the sectional final.
“We had always played them at Central but they had to come over to our field for the sectional, where we obviously felt very comfortable,” Stapleton said.
The atmosphere at Downer Grove South that night was electric – a packed house, there to watch two teams of the first rank do battle for the right to advance downstate.
The Mustangs did something that day that teams just didn't do to Hinsdale Central that season, jumping out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by McCormack.
“What I remember was how we reacted after the first goal,” Wiggins said. “We just didn’t respond well to being scored on first and the pressure of that, when we hadn’t had that issue all year. And it was the energy that they brought that we didn’t respond well to.”
Bryant Williams scored a pivotal second goal for South before halftime. For that year’s defense, a 2-0 lead was like blood in the water to a shark.
“On average we were giving up less than a goal a game,” Stapleton said. “I remember at halftime stressing to them that nobody scores two or three goals on us in a half. It just didn’t happen, so at halftime we used that two-goal lead as a source of confidence.”
Curry stood out that day. Central pushed numbers forward in the second half and the Mustangs scored a late goal off of that pressure to win 3-0. “I remember Hinsdale Central had chances and Jason Curry played tremendous that night in net,” Stapleton said.
Curry anchored a defense that only gave up 13 goals in 29 games, and he set a program record with 17 shutouts that season.
“He was the king of the back,” Marchese said of Curry. “He directed everything. When we were having a tough time on the field, he knew exactly where to put us.”
The run to the title
“I think we had the mindset that as soon as we beat Hinsdale Central, we thought no one was going to stop us, because they were the top team,” Jones said. “We had a lot of confidence.”
South drew Lincoln-Way Central in a state quarterfinal game at North Central College, winning 2-0 on goals from McCormack. Marchese posted his second assist of the year, a harbinger of things to come for the rugged senior defender.
The Mustangs faced Guilford in the semifinal game. The Rockford team had posted 153 goals that season, boasted a 28-2 record, and was led by Brad Ring and his 40 goals scored that season. Guilford placed second to Neuqua Valley at the 2003 state finals.
Curry and the boys in back kept Ring out of net in a 3-1 win. South got goals from Harrigan, Jones, and the first goal of the season by Marchese. Jones and McCormack chipped in assists in the game.
Marchese’s goal was a punctuation point on a fine season, for a player who largely spent the season toiling in anonymity to the soccer community at large. His teammates knew his value, however, and they voted Marchese team MVP.
“He was so overlooked and underappreciated,” Curry said of Marchese. “He always did his job, he never messed up, but playing in back he didn’t get a lot of glory. He really held the team together.”
McCormack was well aware of Marchese’s value to the team.
“As a forward you just hate to play against a guy like him,” McCormack said. “He’s a big, strong guy, he’s going to give you a couple of knocks, and he’s going to get in your head. I practiced against him and I never liked it. He’d rough you up.”
The other unsung South player that year was Lichaj, who had scored 12 goals as an outside midfielder his junior year before playing as a holding mid as a senior.
“He’s the one player that, when I look back, I appreciate his play more so now than I did in the moment,” Stapleton said. “He was a tremendous midfielder for us and he allowed Alex Jones to push up and attack. And he was a coach on the field. He settled things down for us.”
The title game
Stapleton’s message to his team heading into the state final touched on a theme they’d talked about all season. “All year we talked about seeing where the journey takes us,” Stapleton said. “The night of that state game I remember saying something like ‘look where the journey has taken us. Here we are. Let’s take advantage of it'.”
In Buffalo Grove, South took on a team that scrapped and clawed its way to a 19-5-3 record to get downstate. A Bison legend in John Erfort coached the final game of his 29-year career that day, a career that included the Brian McBride-led state title team of 1988.
Buffalo Grove defended hard but its leading scorer that season only had 10 goals and was the only Bison in double digits. South ultimately earned a 22-10 edge in overall shots taken in the state title game.
Having carried the bulk of the team’s scoring on his shoulders all season, McCormack struggled to get a clean look on net against Buffalo Grove. As the scoreless tie dragged on, it began to wear on the senior.
“I was frustrated throughout that game. Every time I took a shot someone would stick a foot out and block it,” McCormack said. “But I remember Curry coming up to me and saying ‘you’re going to score’.”
“Other guys had chances but nothing was opening up for me. (Stapleton) pulled me over and said ‘you know, you’re going to get your chance’.”
Benet coach Henry Wind also remembers the ’04 team at Downers South. “What I mostly remember about them is that if you made a mistake, they’d punish you for it,” Wind said.
That punishment finally came in the 9th minute of the first overtime period. The other video you’ll find on the Mustangs’ team page shows Masolak intercepting a Buffalo Grove pass near midfield, and sending it ahead to McCormack.
In that season and at that precise moment, there wasn’t a high school player anywhere in Illinois that any coach would have rather had in that position than McCormack.
“There’s that moment – that one split second – what would Mike do with it?” Stapleton said. “The keeper came out, Mike beat him to it, and sent it to the back of the net.”
Watch McCormack's goal here
“I’ve seen the play a million times,” McCormack said. “I just saw the space in front of me, I pointed, and Lukasz played it perfectly. The pass was perfect. I hit it just hard enough and low enough where it dipped over the keeper’s shoulder and I got the right bend on it.”
McCormack’s game-winner sparked the usual pandemonium of a state title win, with Mustangs running wildly around the field at North Central, fans losing their minds, and players hugging and piling onto each other. McCormack and Marchese were red-carded for taking their jerseys off in celebration, and the team converged near a temporary fence next to the crowd and proceeded to fall through it, almost wiping out a few Mustangs' cheerleaders in the process.
“That was cloud nine, right there,” Curry said. “After the goal I just freaked out and started running. It got no better than that – just sprinting and yelling.”
For the next week, Stapleton and his boys achieved local celebrity status in Downers Grove, riding on fire trucks and attending school assemblies to honor the achievement. Earlier that year Stapleton promised his Mustangs that if they won the state title, they could shave his head. Lichaj took the electric razor to his coach’s hair in front of a crowd in the school's gym.
You can bet Stapleton would have given up more than his hair for the team he had that year.
“Hard work, character, dedication – as far as I’m concerned, these guys were champions on the field as well as off,” Stapleton said. “It was a great group of guys.”
Every state title team has a bench that also plays key roles at various points, and South’s title team was no exception.
Nick Bulleri scored a crucial goal in the sectional semifinal win over Neuqua Valley. Ryan Crowley chipped in 9 assists that year. Jason Drews was just a sophomore, but he played in 22 games that season.
Other contributors to that state championship season included Ed Boula, James Dismang, Dave Pollack, Chris Pelc, Mike Rubeck, Chris Sinnott, Kyle Westbrook, Jon Drews, Steve Evangelista, Gary Evans, Dan Hagedorn, Tyler Jepsen, Valdko Karanakov, Kevin Kluge, Nikola Kremarevic, and Calvin Kujuwa.
Many of the players from the state team went on to play soccer at various colleges, and some stay in touch and still see each other now and then. A good handful of them gathered together this year for a five-year reunion day, when this year’s Mustangs took on Oswego East.
The memory of that season is still fresh in all of their minds. “You think about the state title game, but you mostly think about having fun with the guys,” Marchese said.
“We were like brothers.”