When unranked Bishop Noll made its way to semistate in last year's boys soccer postseason, the Warriors represented one of the season's great underdog stories.
The Warriors' last-minute, overtime victory over Griffith and wins over multiple ranked foes gave the young squad belief as they charged deep into the playoffs.
That all crashed to a halt when Bishop Noll fell 1-0 to Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, coming up just short of the Class 2A state title game. Ever since, the Warriors have fed off that loss.
“It made us hungry,” Noll senior goalkeeper Danny Salazar said. “We see how close we (were), like actually getting there, and now we just know we can get a better outcome out of it.”
Now, Bishop Noll ranks 14th in Class 2A in the Indiana Soccer Coaches Association poll and has posted a 16-2 record after losing two senior starters from last year's team.
The Warriors have experience they didn't have last time around — two years ago, they went one-and-done in losing to Andrean in the sectional semifinals.
The Warriors may need that experience Saturday as they head to South Bend to face No.1-ranked South Bend St. Joseph in the regional semifinals.
“Maybe we were taken lightly, maybe no one knew what to expect from us, but to get as far as we did last year with as young as a team as we had, I think definitely left us with a bitter taste in our mouth,” Bishop Noll coach Quinn Cloghessy said. “I think (it) instilled so much confidence in this team, knowing they were this close to playing in the state championship game, and one goal kept them out of that. I think when they realized that there are only two starters on that team that were leaving, it motivated some of these boys to pick up the slack.”
The Warriors said the impact of last year's run has completely changed their day-to-day approach. Instead of goofing off before practice and perhaps playing a game of World Cup, Salazar said the Warriors get straight to their warm-ups and drills. Cloghessy said Bishop Noll has gotten more contributions across its full roster, and a more diverse attack could serve the Warriors well against what Cloghessy described as a fundamentally sound St. Joseph team that makes few mistakes.
“We've become more focused as a team,” sophomore forward Jake Wichlinski said. “We're just gelling perfectly. … If we play how we know we can play, we'll be just fine out there.”
Wichlinski leads the team with 33 goals, and Salazar has displayed leadership in using his unique view of the field to organize teammates and issue directives. While Wichlinski said his goal for Saturday is to create chaos in the box and open up attacking space for teammates, a bigger key to the match could be the Warriors' improved mental toughness.
“The biggest (improvement) is not accepting defeat,” Cloghessy said. “There's a lot of times in the past, ... if Noll gets scored on first, we just crumbled. We just put our heads down, and it's like, 'Alright, we're probably gonna lose.'”
Bishop Noll appears to be surging at the right time with 23 goals in its last four games and a 4-0 victory over 13-5-1 Griffith in the sectional final. Nearly a year after the Warriors' semistate loss, they have a chance to redeem themselves.
“It's all I've worked for these four years,” Salazar said. “I just want it to be Saturday already. I can't wait.”