In 2010, St. Anthony High School started its boys’ soccer program in a bumpy park with no goals, no athletic tradition, no recognition and only freshmen and sophomores.
“At the time we scheduled them for a full 24-game season at the varsity level so that they would see what the competition had … so they could get used to it,” St. Anthony head coach Jeff Serak said. “The talent was always there.”
Now, after finishing their third season, the first with senior players, the Roman Legion from St. Anthony can call themselves the WIAA Division III State Champions with a 27-3 record.
St. Anthony High School opened in 2009, an extension of St. Anthony Elementary School on 9th and Mitchell streets, Milwaukee. Due to late paperwork filing with the WIAA that year, the school couldn’t have sports until the following year.
“As athletic director, I’ll go to different sporting events, especially at cross country, where there are a number of different schools, there and I’ll often get asked, ‘St. Anthony, where is that? We’ve never heard of you,’” Dave Marsicek, athletic director, said. “It only took us three years (to win the state championship) because we had a lot of talent. But it did take us three years because we needed to get that experience.”
Eduardo Gutierrez, a senior who has been playing since he was 6-years-old, said the team didn’t let the lack of recognition get to them.
“We worked really hard every year,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, one of two senior starters, played forward and scored 35 goals this year.
The team went from a park with no goals, to a park with goals, but the bumpy ground followed them and may have given them an advantage.
“I’d like to think of those fields, since they are bumpy and the ball doesn’t roll flat, it really helps them focus on trapping and the skills,” Serak said. “Then when we play on those fields that are flat, it’s just easier for them.”
The school, however, doesn’t have a “home” field, which can make things difficult.
“We’re basically playing every game away, every game we’re on a bus, every game we’re traveling,” Serak said. “We don’t get the benefit of our fans going with us every time.”
School president Zeus Rodriguez might be the team’s biggest fan, missing only one game this season.
“I’m like the Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys,” Rodriguez said. “I’m on the sideline even when they don’t want me to be.”
Rodriguez said the championship will benefit the school.
“Having new programs at any new high school is something that parents and the community want to see what you provide,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody wants to be academically excellent, obviously, everyone’s going to move to that goal but they want to see what you offer, what extra-curricular programs.”
St. Anthony requires that its student athletes maintain a 2.0 GPA to play. The school also requires its students to maintain good conduct.
“I was there one day right at the end of the season when, arguably, our best player got a little lippy with the dean and he didn’t get to play that day,” Rodriguez said. “We have pretty strong standards; we don’t let them fly by just to win.”
Like a lot of students in his class, Gutierrez hopes to go to college.
“I would like to get a scholarship, but that’s not really my main concern. Soccer is just a really cool sport that I like to play and have passion for,” Gutierrez said. He added he’d like to play soccer as long as he can, but wants a career in physical therapy or sports science.
Many of the students at St. Anthony, including those on the soccer team, come from low-income families where paying for college will be a daunting task. The entire St. Anthony School, comprised of four campuses, has an enrollment of 1,668 students; 339 of whom attend St. Anthony High School. Most of the students are Hispanic and enrolled through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
“Their talent and their dedication should allow them to be able to be successful in college and get a scholarship because money is something that’s difficult for them,” Marsicek said. “Realistically, sometimes finances make it very difficult…. I don’t want to say there isn’t a possibility, because anything’s possible, but it makes it a lot harder for some of these students to do that.”
Marsicek said the soccer program has given students something to rally around and for players, an opportunity to go to college.
So far UW-Parkside and Cardinal Stritch University have inquired about Gutierrez and senior starter Bernabe Barba.
Gutierrez said being a senior means being a leader and showing the “young ones” how to lead because “I’m not going to be there and it’s going to be up to them to keep it going.”
Rodriguez said he expects the team to go to state again next year but won’t be so bold as to say they’ll win it again.
He leaves that up to Serak.
“My expectation is to win it again,” Serak said.
After going to state in tennis as a player with Greendale High School, Serak said winning, as a coach, is the most gratifying experience.
“When you’re a player, you don’t really always grasp the enormity of it,” Serak said. “The fact that you only have four chances to do this and when it’s over, it’s over.”