Several weeks before the DeSales High School boys soccer team completed a dominant run to a state championship, it was suggested to coach Domenic Romanelli that this year's Stallions might be the state's best team regardless of classification.
"That's not for me to make that call, but I just told the kids this is the best team I've ever had here," Romanelli said Nov. 11, minutes after the Stallions shut out Bay Village Bay 4-0 in the Division II state final at Mapfre Stadium. "As a coach, you always talk about what previous teams did, and I told them that this '17 team will be mentioned a lot in the years to come."
DeSales celebrated its third title in four years and seventh overall. Romanelli also coached the Stallions to championships in 2009, 2014 and 2015 and was an assistant coach on the 1992 title team.
Speculation aside, this year's team was rarely threatened in going 22-0-1 overall. DeSales outscored its opponents 102-8, including 38-0 in seven postseason games.
The Stallions finished their season largely without their top player in senior midfielder Hector Gomez, who suffered a high left ankle sprain in a 6-0 win over Warsaw River View in a regional semifinal Nov. 1 at Lakewood. He was held out of a 5-0 win over Albany Alexander in a regional final Nov. 4 at Bloom-Carroll and played only about two minutes in a 2-0 win against Kettering Alter in a state semifinal Nov. 8 at Springfield.
Gomez still made his presence felt in the final, racking up three assists in 57 minutes. He led DeSales with 25 goals and 19 assists and finished his career with 71 goals.
"Even if I was hurting, I had to come out and play," said Gomez, who was named state Player of the Year after the final. "I felt great at halftime and I told (Romanelli) I could go another 40 minutes. ... They gave me a lot of space. I think since I didn't start, they weren't used to man-marking me or staying on me tight. That gave me so much space to make a difference."
Junior midfielder Mike Cockerell's unassisted goal into the right corner of the net from 25 yards opened the scoring 17 minutes in, and Gomez assisted on the first of junior midfielder Nick Fuchs' two goals on a crossing pass to the left side of the net six minutes later to make it 2-0. Hector Gomez's second assist came on a goal by Cristian Gomez that gave the Stallions a 3-0 lead with 3:52 left in the first half.
Fuchs added the final goal early in the second half.
"We don't rely on any one player, but Hector is a huge help," Fuchs said. "He's such an outstanding player. His skill is just unreal."
Goalkeeper Sam Nortz had five saves for Bay, which finished 17-5-1 and had a 16-game winning streak snapped. Senior goalie Chase Agin made just one save for DeSales in recording the team's 17th shutout of the season, and Romanelli was able to get each of his 22 players into the game.
"(Bay) just didn't have an answer," Romanelli said. "I've never been in a final where that's happened. I didn't know how to coach after that. We really wanted that third goal before the half, and we got it. But I haven't coached in a final where we've had that kind of lead."
DeSales had defeated Bay 1-0 in the 2009, 2014 and 2015 state finals.
The Stallions' seven state titles are second in Ohio history to Division I power Cleveland St. Ignatius' eight.
A 1-all tie against Marys-ville on Sept. 7, a game that was added only because the Stallions were dropped late by Hilliard Davidson, was the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect record.
DeSales went 4-0 in the CCL to win the league championship, ahead of St. Charles (3-1), Watterson (2-2), Hartley (1-3) and Ready (0-4).
The top-seeded Stallions cruised through the 27-team district tournament, shutting out 18th-seeded Linden-McKinley 8-0 in the second round Oct. 21, ninth-seeded Marion Pleasant 6-0 in a semifinal Oct. 25 and 12th-seeded Jonathan Alder 7-0 in a final Oct. 28.
Against Alter, senior defender Zack Garrett scored what turned out to be the winning goal 13 minutes in, and sophomore forward Jack Francisco added insurance with 12 minutes to play.
It was only Garrett's fifth goal of the year, but an emotional one given that he had a decisive own goal in a 2-1 double-overtime state semifinal loss to Alter last year.
"I knew I had to make a difference," Garrett said. "I'd been hoping (Alter) would show up on our schedule. It was one of those games that helped us show how much better we are now than we were last year."
Agin, Cockerell, Cristian Gomez and Hector Gomez were named first-team all-league. Garrett and junior defender Josh Conroy were second-team all-league.
The Gomez brothers both earned first-team all-district, and Agin was second-team all-district.
Cristian Gomez, who also made second-team all-state, had 18 goals and 11 assists. Fuchs scored 12 goals, and Francisco had nine goals and six assists.
Others eligible to return include juniors Ricci Kreuzer (midfielder), Riley Paxton (defender), Cesar Ramirez (defender), Thomas Sauer (goalie), Alex Whalen (defender) and Ben Whalen (midfielder).
"I am not sure this is a season you could ever top," Romanelli said.