After two consecutive years of falling short in their quest for a national title, a group of Ohio Premier soccer players reached their ultimate goal in their final game for the club.
The OP 19-under boys team earned an Elite National Premier League championship by defeating New England Futbol Club 3-1 in the final July 3 in Lancaster, Massachusetts.
The team consisted of 18 players from central Ohio who graduated from high school earlier this year.
The nucleus of the team had played together since the 13U level and had reached the national tournament the previous two seasons. It finished third at the 16U level two years ago and fifth at the 18U level last year.
"We've been fortunate to always challenge for winning a national championship," said Travis Wall, who coached the group the last three years. "Everything came together this year. We made some good additions to the team each step along the way and it culminated with this run this year."
According to Big Walnut graduate Sam Mason, a midfielder who had been with the team since the 13U level and will play at Northern Kentucky, the championship was worth the years of hard work.
"We've all been very hungry for it, coming up so close and then falling at the last hurdle," he said. "This year we put a few good months of training together and we had the mindset that we were going to get it done. ... We've all put in so much blood, sweat and tears together. We've really become more than just teammates, we've become brothers over the years. It's a special moment for all of us."
Midfielder Colin McCort (Olentangy Liberty) and forwards Luke Kiley (Dublin Coffman) and Logan Thompson (Marion Pleasant) scored for OP after it fell behind 1-0 in the championship game.
Goalkeeper Bryant Pratt (Watterson) made five saves. He shared goalie duties throughout the season with Jacob Castro (Hilliard Bradley).
The 16-team tournament began June 29 with four groups consisting of four teams each. OP went 3-0 in group B pool play, including a 1-0 win over Manhattan (New York) Soccer Club in a semifinal as Kiley scored with 10 minutes remaining.
OP advanced to nationals by winning the Midwest Conference title at 10-0-3 in the first year of the league. Kiley was named the conference's Player of the Year, and forward Emeka Eneli (Coffman) also was named to the all-conference team.
Kiley, who will play at Georgetown, capped a memorable prep and club career. On June 6, he was named Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year for 2017-18. Last fall, he was named Ohio Mr. Soccer and Division I district Player of the Year after recording 24 goals and 17 assists to help Coffman reach a state semifinal for the first time.
"Luke has made quite the name and reputation for himself, not only in Columbus but all over the country," Wall said. "One of the neatest things about Luke is in all of our biggest games, he's able to elevate his game. He was fantastic all week."
Other players were forwards Chris Dowling (Dublin Jerome) and Jason Fleischmann (Hilliard Darby), midfielders Chase Geddis (Big Walnut), Hector Gomez (DeSales), Brody Kannally (Delaware) and Carter Patchett (Jerome) and defenders Wes Collins (Liberty), Noah Paoletti (Coffman), Sam Slocum (Westerville Central), Matt Stritar (Coffman) and Matt Walters (Marysville).
"From day one, I thought this was the team that was going to be able to do it," Dowling said. "From our first practice, I had no doubts the whole season that we would get to where we got. ... It was huge. It was the perfect way to end our club careers together and it made sense for us to get it done this year."