John Erardi reports:
He’s got the name of a former major league baseball slugger, the build of a budding PGA Tour golfer and the right foot of a NFL kicker.
Jack Clark, all 5-feet-8 and 140 pounds of him, was crowned Saturday – along with 23 of his Mason High School teammates – Ohio Division I boys state soccer champions, completing an undefeated (22-0-1) season with a 1-0 victory over Mentor that had come in undefeated as well (now 18-1-4).
How sweet it is.
‘‘He’s amazing,’’ said teammate Gary Zhao, the sophomore midfielder who from the right side saw Clark coming up the middle and chipped a shot over the head of a defender and dropped it right in Clark’s path.
- Photos: Comets win state soccer title
‘‘I knew what was going to next. When Jack is one-on-one with a goalie… ‘’
If there’s poetic justice in soccer, it was fulfilled with a little over 17 minutes left to play at Crew Stadium in the north-end goal backed by a U.S. flag starched straight toward Lake Erie by a 20-mile-an-hour wind.
Fulfilled, because Clark – who came into this game with 30 goals for the season (and 72 in his high school career) – made his 31st the game-winner.
Certainly, there was irony in it.
Irony, because Clark is best-known for a wickedly hard shot that he delivers with the precision of an arrow going into a bull’s-eye.
And yet, he scored the game-winner on a chip shot that bounded into a wide-open net. At least it looked wide-open, until you realized it was open because the keeper had to come out from the near post to defend him.
The keeper did the right thing.
It’s possible that somewhere in the distant past Clark has lost a mano-a-mano battle with a keeper, but nobody from Mason remembers when.
By the lore, it’s something like Clark 36, Sitting Ducks 0.
Clark doesn’t buy into the lore, but yes, he likes his chances.
“He should,” Zhao said. ‘‘The goalie has no chance.’’
The beauty of Saturday’s victory was that so many players had a hand in it – especially the seniors, seven of whom have played together since they were 8 year olds on the Mason Fury select team. They all started this year for Mason.
‘‘We weren’t that great when we were eight, but over the years we’ve gotten better and better,’’’ said senior defender Eric Liddell. ‘‘When we get the ball, we know where each other are going to be.’’
State soccer championships are bigger than the schools that win them.
Entire regions of the state are represented by them, and for Cincinnati, which rightly considers itself one of the truly great capitals of youth soccer in America, it was about time for a D-1 boys team to break through again.
“It’s unbelievable how many coaches wished me good luck and said, ‘Hey, bring a state title back to Cincinnati,’’’ Mason coach Paul Reedy said. ‘‘That’s a special feeling when you feel like you’re representing more than just your school, but your city as well.’’
It was an excellent game of contrasting philosophies – or better put, styles suited to its players. Mentor sought to set up plays with numerous passes, Mason chose to push the attack because it has defensive players with offensive abilities.
‘‘We haven’t played a team like them the entire year,’’ said Mason senior defender Josh Grant. ‘‘We tried to get our wings as high up as we could to pressure their outside backs to force a mistake to get us going.’’
In terms of authentic shots in goal, Mason outshot Mentor 6-1 in the first half, all of them coming in the first 20 minutes.
‘‘We had some decent possessions from the back into the middle, but when we approached their final third, they got a lot tighter,’’ said Mentor head coach Chris Payne. ‘‘They’re very organized coming to the ball, bringing pressure and covering for each other. They close things and don’t let you get shots off.’’
What appeared to be a goal by Mason with 10 minutes left in the first half brought a Comets celebration, but a late-recognition call of offsides negated it.
Completing the ‘‘Unfinished Business’’ mantra printed on at least one Mason fan’s T-shirts wasn’t going to be easy. The Comets lost in the state semis last year.
Everybody expected the Comets to assert their will early in the second half, wind at their backs. Not so fast, responded the Mentor Cardinals.
Mentor got the first good shot of the second half only four minutes in, and 14 minutes later came a big scare for the Comets. Mentor blasted a header off the crossbar on a sweet service in. It ripped just past keeper Spencer Parrish’s hands.
“I was a little out of position,’’ he said. ‘‘We got lucky. If that had gone in, it would have been like being punched in the stomach, had the wind knocked out of us. It would have changed everything. We would have had start pushing up and pressing for a goal even more than we had.’’
‘‘We sort of woke up from that,’’ coach Reedy said.
A Mason storm was brewing.
The Comets responded with a pair of breath-holding shots, one a half-cross/half-shot two minutes later (it ‘‘rode the rail’’ of the crossbar from the left side) and another four minutes later, driven just high.
‘‘We could feel it,’’ Grant said. ‘‘We could sense a goal coming.’’
The punch in the stomach came 50 seconds later, special delivery off Clark’s right foot, a chip over the keeper, the ball bouncing into the back of an empty net, a fixture the Mason Comets will see in their minds forever.