Members of under-the-radar 2006 squad share memories of remarkable run
By Will O’Brien (STM ’07)
Sixteen years ago, the right mix of talent, personality, coaching, physical fitness, luck, and brotherhood culminated in St. Thomas More winning its first and only boys’ soccer state championship. A series of recent conversations with my former teammates brought back memories — some fresh, some less so — and captured what I think we all felt that fall: It was a special time with a special group. It was an experience that made each of us better and one we’ll never forget.
The seeds of the 2006 championship season took root in the years before. Whether any of us thought so at the time, however, is another question.
The Cavalier squads of the early 2000s weren’t pushovers. Talented players and decent teams came and went. But the program wasn’t contending for titles and didn’t have a strong history of doing so. Thomas More won conference in 1998 and 1999 but had been unable to accomplish that feat since.
Fall 2003 saw a good-sized freshman class report for duty at the Cousins Center fields, the lakeside complex where many of us had learned the game with our grade-school squads. The youngsters included eventual state winners Scott Fellows, Mike Guerrero, Elliot Ignasiak, Stevan Polewski, Jessie Ramirez, Chris “CJ” Scerpella, Zach Schabla, and at least a half-dozen others. Polewski, an eventual captain, made varsity straight away, while the rest of us made the junior varsity team competitive. The following fall welcomed Cal Czajka, Tommy Duda, Ryan Jones, Griffin Loehner, Jesse Murguia, Jake Sarnowski, Brad Trimble, and DJ Widowski.
Coach Tony Esparza, experienced and passionate, arrived in 2004 and made an immediate impact, instituting a no-nonsense attitude during practice. He also introduced a new tradition: Frequent team barbecues, where the mood was loose, and coach manned the grill in his lobster-print shorts.
Talented and tough upperclassmen like Carl Czajka, Dave Hanson, Mike Lang, Diego Martinez, and Joe Glasnovic had the program on the up if not yet, contending.
“[The championship] season seemed the culmination of work started under the previous coaches that built to the final season’s success,” recalled Scerpella. “I think Tony Esparza laid the groundwork for that team.”
“Sophomore and junior year, I remember going to tournaments with the varsity team and not doing particularly well or getting knocked out,” said Ignasiak. “Racine Prairie was a perennial powerhouse the Thomas More could never get past. I thought some of those [previous] Thomas More teams had some really good players, so I didn’t really have any reason to believe we’d fare differently in the postseason [senior year].”
Training camp and coaches
Coach Tomislav Markovic replaced Esparza midway through 2005 and, in partnership with assistant coach Joe Anderson, took our tough-and-fun dynamic — and our team’s performance on the field — to a new level the following fall.
“Tomi and Joe were a fantastic combination,” recalled Fellows. “Joe, who played Division I soccer at Madison and spent time in the U.S. National Team’s academy program, was instrumental in developing our fitness. When Tomi said, ‘Joe, grab your flats,’ we all knew what that meant.”
The appearance of Joe’s flat, non-spiked shoes, of course, meant brutally long and testing runs.
“He could run forever,” said Jones.
I remember him leading us on a five-miler our first practice senior year, repeatedly switching pace along the way. I recall thinking and hearing teammates say we didn’t sign up for cross-country. I also remember running a similar route months later with a smile on my face.
“I think the thing that separated us from most teams was our fitness,” Fellows said. “Being able to push through games for 90 minutes really helped, and I think the results would show that. Throughout the tournament, besides the first game, our matches were all one-goal victories.”
Anderson, a Prairie School alumnus, said he and Markovic immediately decided to focus on the team’s fitness. They also quickly realized the team’s potential.
“The first tournament we played was in Brown Deer,” Anderson said. “At this tournament were the two-time defending Division 3 state champs, Racine Prairie. In between our games, Tomi and I went to watch them play, and, after about 10 minutes, we looked at each other and said, ‘We are going to win the state title this year.’ What Prairie possessed in talent — we knew we had as much if not more with our team. The level we needed to reach was tangible, and our confidence grew.”
Markovic, a former Franklin stand-out long involved with the Croatian Eagles Soccer Club, balanced frequent jokes and a fun-loving personality with an advanced soccer IQ and an innate ability to lead.
“There were no coaches I enjoyed playing for more than Tomi and Joe,” said Schabla. “They always had our back on and off the field. I remember them being great motivators and inventive with different drills and games in practice to keep pushing us. They knew how to relate to us and have fun, but at the same time, they had the respect of everyone on that team.”
“Hearing of Coach Tomi’s battle with cancer and him beating it doesn’t surprise me after some of the practices with him,” said Loehner. Markovic survived the disease in 2019 and is now the head coach of Franklin High School’s boys’ soccer team and co-director of the Croatian Eagles Soccer Club academy.
“Tomi would boot the ball in scrimmage, and I remember never wanting to get in front of his kicks,” Jones recalled. “You’d have a nice mark the next day.”
Chris and DJ
Solid as our experienced core and coaching staff were, it was a senior-year transfer from Brookfield, Chris Reistad, who put state within reach. Reistad possessed a level of assuredness, soccer smarts, and personality unmatched by anyone else on the squad. I played next to him in defense and learned something new every day.
“My earliest recollection of that season is Chris Reistad saying we were going to win state after a normal practice,” Loehner said. “He brought an energy that changed our whole team’s attitude toward the season. He also started the singalongs on the bus ride home from away games.”
“The thing I remember most about that season was that The Fray’s ‘How to Save a Life’ was our song and anthem,” said Murguia. “We’d sing on bus rides to the game to get us ready. I’m not sure if it pumped us up or what, but it got us all together as one team.”
Kenneth Araya, a stand-out sophomore and fellow defender, called Reistad “tough as nails.”
“Chris just made everyone’s day better. He lifted up everyone around him,” Schabla added.
Chris passed away in April 2020.
Tall and muscular with an incredible combination of quickness and power, DJ Widowski would have looked more at home on a football field. Widowski, who passed away in 2018, shared Chris’s goofy-if-more-reserved personality.
I remember him snacking on a whole tomato as if it were an apple before one game. I also remember how calm I felt playing alongside him, knowing he could outsprint anyone on the field.
“I remember Coach Tomi telling DJ to take our penalty kicks even though he had never taken one,” recalled Araya. “Coach said, ‘Just blast it into the goal.’” Widowski obliged with confidence.
“I recall him being a good competitor, someone that really didn’t give the impression of ever slacking off on the field,” said Scerpella.
“DJ was a close friend of mine throughout high school,” Loehner added. “Hearing of his passing was rough. He was a great defender with one of the strongest legs. I remember him taking a few PKs and being jealous of how hard he was able to strike the ball with accuracy.”
Other players had their strengths too. Scott Fellows, an experienced goalkeeper, knew the game inside-out. He was like another coach, always vocal and trying to motivate his teammates. Mike Guerrero outworked everyone, purchasing a weight vest to make Anderson’s sprints even tougher. Years after high school, a video of him went viral, with a much bulkier Guerrero briefly passing out from exertion after deadlifting 600 pounds.
“I feel like Elliot [Ignasiak] was our most influential player,” said Murguia, Ignasiak’s partner in a formidable defensive midfield that reliably stopped opponent attacks and started ours. Stevan Polewski, among our most consistent and technically skilled, was a creative and calming presence in the often-crowded middle of the field, navigating pressure and springing opportunities with a fake-out or pass.
“That ball roll was a different story,” Araya said of Polewski’s next-level passing. Polewski would later return to St. Thomas More as the varsity soccer coach.
Another future Cavalier varsity soccer coach, Jessie Ramirez was, in all fairness to others, probably our bottom-line best player. Fast, tricky, confident, and energetic, Ramirez was a constant threat on offense. Ramirez lived up to his captain duties, often leading the pack in Anderson’s drills.
CJ Scerpella, a versatile midfielder and defenseman, played lots of club ball growing up and it showed. Zach Schabla was a “crazy goalie who wouldn’t give up on any shot,” as Araya put it.
The juniors and sophomores had their traits too. Cal Czajka was a bulldog, just like his brother Carl. Tommy Duda, nearly as quick as Widowski, had a natural nose for goal. Griffin Loehner was a menace out wide and performed a cartwheel-style maneuver — somehow legal — that turned throw-ins into long-distance launches. Jesse Murguia balanced strength and defensive grit with smart, steady play.
As sophomore starters, Kenneth Araya and Jose Roque played years beyond their age, Araya as a tough and talented defender and Roque as a gifted midfielder who was perhaps even trickier than Ramirez. Ryan Jones and Brad Trimble brought scrappiness and turns of skill to the table. Jake Sarnowski, lanky with a bright personality, provided bursts of energy.
Sophomores Daniel Hanson and John Maliszewski and freshmen Miguel Frias and Frank Gerschke added skill and depth throughout the season and playoffs.
“We had a very cohesive team,” Schabla said. “Like any good team, we had a lot of talented players, but individual ability was always secondary to the respect we had for each other. That’s what made us great.”
“I think the team we had was not exceptionally talented individually, but when we played together, we looked like a team that could compete in the UEFA Champions League,” Araya recalled. “There was a lot of heart, and everyone knew their jobs on the field.”
“We were a team and, more importantly, a family,” Murguia added. “Everyone was accepted and accepted each other. No one was going to beat us because the next man in line would never allow it.”
The glories of state, of course, were preceded by growing pains. The team finished the regular season with a record of 14 wins, 10 losses, and one draw.
“I think the biggest thing that stands out to me was just how under-the-radar we were,” said Ignasiak. “We were OK during the regular season, but it’s not like we were dominating the competition. But at least we weren’t getting dominated by teams that had done so in the past—New Berlin or Tosa, for example. In hindsight, I think the difficulty of our regular season was what really primed us for a good postseason. We were a D3 school that played primarily D2 and D1 competition. But in the postseason, we actually got to play other D3 schools.”
These growing pains may have prevented the Cavaliers from capturing their conference championship, but they prepared the team for the grueling playoff matches that lay ahead.
“Going into games, I remember being a little intimidated because we were playing teams with strong records,” Ignasiak continued. “But once kickoff happened, I think we all realized that the other teams weren’t any better than us. Once that really sunk in, I think we just had this quiet confidence that allowed us to play our way as underdogs all the way to a state championship.”
Battling our way through the Woodland Conference paid off. I remember Duda skying above Wauwatosa West defenders on a corner kick and heading the ball into the net, putting us up a goal against a team that’d absolutely trounced us a year or two earlier. We wound up tying that game, but I remember it feeling like a major step forward for our team.
The playoffs started with a lopsided win, and the team’s expectations grew. Students packed into three buses on a cold fall day to watch the Cavaliers take on Racine St. Catherine’s in the sectional final.
The squad’s run, however, looked doomed as the clock wound down in the sectional final against Racine St. Catherine’s.
Then came Guerrero.
“Tomi and I turned to Mike and said, ‘We need a goal!’” Anderson recalled. “Guerrero replied, ‘I’ll get you two!’”
Guerrero backed up his profound confidence with an unforgettable performance.
“I remember we were losing until the final five minutes,” Schabla said. “I thought the season was over, but then Mike went on his scoring running. That was definitely the wildest game I remember.”
“Heart of a champion,” Murguia said of the resilient Cavaliers and their stellar substitute.
“They score one early in the game,” remembered Guerrero. “The second half begins; we’re still down 1-0 but have been knocking at the door all game.
“Jessie puts a corner kick right down the middle, the ball bounces once, and I just rip it into the back of the net. From that point on, the crowd was going nuts. The sidelines were packed with students, friends, and family. The air was electric.
“Time is running out — 86th minute, 87th, 88th, 89th. Jesse Murguia puts a solid pass to Elliot Ignasiak, and I take off in a full sprint downfield. Elliot turns and plays a perfect pass to open space, and I get it without breaking stride.
“I take two touches, reach the 18-yard box, and fire off a shot. The ball hits the keeper in the chest and bounces back to the six-yard box. I get there first and nail it into the side net. We’re up 2-1 in the final minute.
“The final whistle blows, and the crowd charges the field. TM is going into the finals for the first time. It was electric; the experience definitely imprinted on those who were there.”
Mike’s right. I feel electric re-reading his description.
“I still get goosebumps,” Anderson said.
We won our next game, the state semifinal against Columbus Catholic, in a similar if not quite as dramatic fashion. After a hard-fought stalemate for the 90 minutes of regulation, Roque buried a loose ball in extra time, moving the Cavaliers on to the state championship.
“It was cold and gray — your typical Wisconsin fall weather,” Scerpella said.
“I remember that whole weekend was super-cold and having to wear multiple layers of clothing,” added Araya, “t-shirt, long-sleeve, even a jacket for warm-ups.”
“Emotions were running high that day, a cold and wet November morning, and I can admit I was very nervous,” recalled Fellows. “But Coach Tomi was smart enough to make us get ready inside while Columbus tried to warm up in the cold. To me, that’s just an intelligent coaching move.”
I remember warming up inside, saying a team prayer (not something we’d always done), and being quite nervous myself.
“I remember the bus ride to the game and trying to visualize myself making saves off shots from different angles,” said Schabla.
“It felt like our whole school was at that championship game. That’s what made it so much fun. Feeling that support definitely gave me extra motivation.”
“I remember the state final being the first time all season I didn’t have those pregame butterflies or jitters,” said Murguia. “I had all the confidence that it would be our day to make history.”
The game started as one might expect. The ball, rock-like in the 40-degree weather, bounced a bit wildly from team to team as the amped-up squads settled in. A talented and experienced opponent, Columbus had an outstanding midfielder heading to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a pair of gifted exchange students who led them to a near-perfect record en route to the state final.
But our team, battle-tested and determined, gradually gained control. I remember rewatching the match and the broadcast announcer saying that it looked like our squad had an extra player or two. “The Cavaliers in blue are everywhere,” he exclaimed as we kept the ball in the attacking half, created scoring chances, and quickly regained possession whenever we lost the ball.
The first goal came in the 24th minute when Araya booted a long ball downfield. Duda gave chase, outpacing the Columbus defense and playing the ball to the middle, where Sarnowski calmly guided it home.
Despite our strong play, additional scoring opportunities didn’t come easily, and Columbus managed to tie things up. The error was mine, losing control of the ball instead of simply kicking it out with a Columbus forward hot on my trail. I felt awful but didn’t feel that way for long. My teammates lifted my spirits immediately, and we got back to business.
Duda decided the contest in the 59th, again using his speed to track down a long ball and poke it past their keeper.
The remaining minutes felt long as we worked to minimize risks and eagerly watched the clock.
Araya recalled sprinting “from one side of the field to the other to stop their skilled German transfer player. If I didn’t catch him, he would have been one-on-one [against the goalkeeper].”
Yellow cards accumulated as we did everything we could to hold onto our tenuous lead.
At long last, though, the final minute came. The Cavalier faithful counted down the seconds, and with the final whistle, a full-team dog pile quickly formed on the field.
Members of the 2006 state championship team have taken a variety of paths since graduating, working in fields as diverse as aviation, engineering, art, real estate, and the skilled trades. Some are married with children, and a few have returned to STM to coach.
Though the program has yet to win another state title — the Cavs were runners-up in 2014 — it has continued its consistent play, winning conference in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018 and regional championships in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2019.
About the author
Will O’Brien (STM ’07) is a member of the 2006 St. Thomas More boys’ soccer state championship team. He and his wife live in Chicago, where he works as a strategic communications consultant with FTI Consulting.