Bitta still pursuing soccer state title
Libertyville's Tomide Owolabi (10) slides in to take possession from Jacobs' defense during a game on Aug. 28. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 4, 2013 10:15PM
LIBERTYVILLE — For the past quarter century, Libertyville boys soccer coach Andy Bitta has been chasing an elusive dream.
Now in his 26th season, Bitta has been to a state title game twice while in charge of the Wildcats — once in 1986 and again in 2010.
Both times, however, his team lost.
“It’s not easy to win a state title, by any means,” Bitta said. “No matter how good your team is, there are so many other great teams out there each season. And once the playoffs start, your opponents start playing a much more defensive style. It’s hard enough to score goals in soccer as it is. If it wasn’t, everybody would be doing it.”
In 2011, Libertyville finished with a 17-4-1 overall record and lost to Fremd in the Class 3A sectional finals. And even though they graduated four seniors (Marshall Hollingsworth, Shane Reilly, Joey Ruppert and Sam Kaplan) who all went on to play in college, expectations for the team are once again sky-high. And an extra emphasis has been placed on the older players setting a good example for the younger ones.
“Leadership is gonna be very important for us,” senior midfielder Tomide Owolabi said. “I think we’ve got enough talent to keep the success we’ve had here going. It’s a matter of us all keeping focused.”
The team usually only names two captains, but this year was different.
“The voting was so incredibly close, that I simply couldn’t make just two players captains,” Bitta said. “It wouldn’t have been fair. So we named four players team captains.”
Senior midfielder Austin Bitta, senior defenseman Ryan McKenzie and junior forward Lloyd Chatfield III are also captains, that they’re a measuring stick for other clubs. Bitta, Owolabi and Chatfield have each been playing soccer since age 4, while McKenzie started when he was 5.
“Every time we go out there on the field, we know we have a target on our backs,” McKenzie said. “It doesn’t matter if we have all the talent in the world. If we don’t put in the effort, all that talent is worthless.”
There are a few other changes to this year’s squad. In the past, the Wildcats used primarily a 4-3-3 setup. This season, they’ve switched over to a 4-2-3-1 style of play most of the time. Additionally, three freshmen (Liam O’Connell, Nathan Edmunds, Kevin Reilly) and two sophomores (Alex Stiber, Cameron Fragassi) occupy the varsity roster — something the players and Andy Bitta say isn’t usually the case for Libertyville.
“We’ve had a senior-dominated lineup for quite some time,” Chatfield III said. “But those guys all deserve to be on the field. And when you’ve got a good bench, which I think we have, it makes it a whole lot easier for the starters.”
“It makes it that much more important that we’re role model to the younger kids,” Austin Bitta said. “Not necessarily just by telling them what to do, but more by leading by example with our actions. Warren (22-5-3 in 2011) won the North Suburban Lake (Division) last season, and we’re gonna do everything in our power to try and take that title back from them.”
That journey has already begun.
Libertyville’s next game is at 11:30 a.m., on Saturday, Sept. 8, when they take part in the Pepsi Challenge. It’s an event that has become one of the country’s most prestigious and well-known regular season soccer tournaments.
“This will be a great early season test for us,” Andy Bitta said. “It will be interesting to see how we measure up once we get there, because the competition is incredible. This year, the championship game is at Wrigley Field, too, so it gives us a little extra motivation. But it’s early. We’re only three games into the season, so we’ll see what happens.”