After consecutive runner-up finishes in the WIAA Division 3 state soccer tournament, junior forward Zach Nichols and his McFarland Spartans are ravenous to get a chance to earn the school's first-ever state championship.
“(Those losses) are definitely something I think about all the time,” Nichols said. “I’ve lost quite a bit of sleep over it.
"But it’s added motivation for all of our returners. We know we could have had it last year, and we’re all really excited to get back.”
In 2019, the Spartans faced off against Shorewood in the championship game at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee. McFarland fell in heartbreaking fashion, 2-1, giving up a goal in the 86th minute. Zach’s brother, Ethan Nichols, scored McFarland's lone goal in the third minute of the match.
While Shorewood came out victorious, the Spartans outshot their opponents, 19-5.
“We had quite a bit more of the possessions,” McFarland coach Brett Ogorzalek said. “We just didn’t put the ball in the net, and they did.
"That definitely left a bad taste in our mouth and I think our guys are going to be real hungry to get back and compete at the top level again.”
Behind the leadership of Nichols, who netted a total of 15 goals in 2019, there’s no reason to believe the Spartans won’t get back this season — if there is a WIAA tournament, that is.
The Rock Valley Conference recently elected to postpone all fall sports until spring, when a modified schedule will be played. The WIAA was to determine in mid-August (or later) whether to hold state championship series for traditional fall sports in the fall, in the spring or not at all.
That's the sort of out-of-their-control stuff that McFarland must keep from getting into their heads. That'll be a big part of Nichols' job, as he leads a Spartans team that has gone 39-8-3 over his first two years.
“Zach is a great leader,” said Matt Schutt, McFarland's returning goalkeeper. “He’s not necessarily the most in-your-face leader, but he always leads by example. He’s always doing the right things; he’s always putting himself in the right places.”
“He puts the team first; he wants what is best for the team all the time,” Ogorzalek added. “He’s an unselfish player. He wants to lift everyone around him up and make everybody better.”
Doing his best to make teammates better says a lot, especially with the loaded roster McFarland currently fields. Seniors Jackson Werwinski, Kobie Smith and Carter Mrowiec, both all-Rock Valley defenders last year, return along with junior goalkeeper Schutt, who has yet to allow a goal in a conference game.
Oh, and McFarland also returns midfielder Jake Sampson, an All-State player last year.
With such a large portion of the team returning from last season and Nichols making the Wisconsin State Journal's All-Area first team last year, expectations are high.
The young man takes it all in stride.
“I don’t feel much pressure,” Nichols said. “I just want to be able to play the best I can and do as much as I can for the team. … If the accolades come along with that, that’s great. But, I just want to do all I can for the team.”