High school football: Chemistry and unity power North boys’ return to state title game | Sports
It’s not that Norman North’s men’s soccer program desperately needs success.
The T-Wolves’ six championships are tied for third among all programs in the state, impressive considering the school was only founded in 1997. Four of those championships have come in a span of six years between 2010 and 2016.
North gets the chance to add one more ring to his collection at 1:30 p.m. Saturday when he faces Mustang in the state championship game at Taft Stadium in Oklahoma City.
It’s no surprise the T-Wolves have gotten to this point. But after a few disappointing seasons recently — by T-Wolves’ high standards — their path back to the championship game this season stands out among the rest.
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Current North players are aware of the program’s success. That was what marked senior Nick Dionisio before he joined the team in his first year.
“I grow up just coming and watching North [play], they made the playoffs every year,” Dionisio said. “So getting back to the top is a very big thing for me.”
It has been the same goal for fellow senior Bond Blackman.
“My goal is to win the state,” Blackman said. “Since freshman year, I always wanted to win a state. It’s always been in the back of my mind. »
That focus only intensified for this senior group after a few tough seasons.
The T-Wolves reached the state quarterfinals in 2019 — their first year — after going 6-1 in district play before losing in a shootout to Westmoore.
The 2020 campaign ended abruptly after just three games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was definitely a shock,” Blackman said. “It was my freshman year in college…so I was super excited. I feel like we had a really good team that year, so to have it cut short was really disappointing.
The group’s 2021 season could have been even more difficult. After a 3-2 victory over US Grant in the first round, they collapsed in a 6-1 loss to Mustang in the quarter-finals.
“Last year, [we had] a good team,” said North coach Khalil Benalioulhaj, who was hired ahead of the 2019 season. “I think we weren’t on the same page when it mattered.”
It’s that lesson that has resonated with the Tigers this season.
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If anyone knows what it takes to win a championship, it’s Benalioulhaj. The North coach was on a roster player for the T-Wolves when they won a championship in 2010.
His message to the team has remained the same, especially as we approach this season: to win a championship, you need unity.
“I tell them all the time that the teams that win championships are not necessarily the most talented. They are not even necessarily the hardest workers. But they are the most unified,” Benalioulhaj said. “They are the most aligned. They are on the same page. They work together. They hold each other accountable. It takes a lot of work. It takes a long time to build that chemistry, that belief, and that commitment to buy-in. »
That quest for unity was put to the test when the T-Wolves struggled to start this season.
With Dionisio sidelined the first few games, the team lost their first game of the season to Norman High in a shootout and dropped the following game against Deer Creek. After five games into the season, the T-Wolves were 2-3.
Dionisio said there were frustrations at the start of the year.
“We all had to come to the locker room and as a team we talked about what we wanted from the season,” Dionisio said. “We all decided we wanted to get to the state, and we wanted to have fun.”
Things quickly changed after this difficult start. The T-Wolves have won their district’s last six games, including a decisive overtime win at Putnam City North, to finish in first place in District 6A-2.
The defense led the charge on the pitch, with the T-Wolves having conceded just two goals in their last nine outings. They have beaten all three playoff opponents 6-0 so far.
But Dionisio, Blackman and Benalioulhaj agree that the formula for their success goes deeper.
“This team just looks very different from these other teams,” Dionisio said. “Everyone wants the same thing. Everyone wants to win. Everyone feels like they’re meant to be here and part of the team… I think it’s just a sense of unity that we haven’t had for the last two years, like there’s had some kind of split in the past.
“Everyone is doing their job,” Blackman added.
Seniors are quick not to take credit for it. Both Dionisio and Blackman point to younger players who have made a huge impact.
“One of the main reasons why our defense is so good is Miguel [Madrigal]”Dionisio said. “He’s a freshman, and he’s the best freshman I’ve seen at North in the last five years. I mean, he’s special.
“We play three [on offense.] It’s me and two juniors, Bostyn [Carroll] and owen [Whitman]”, Blackman added. “I’m definitely the least talented.
It is this senior leadership, Benalioulhaj said, that helped build unity.
“[The coaching staff] have breakfast every Friday morning with the seniors, and I tell them, “You have a responsibility to these young people who look up to you every day,” Benalioulhaj said. “‘You’re the ones they’re going to tell stories about when they’re seniors. You’re the ones they’ll remember and act on after. and so they take that to heart and they do a great job of building relationships with younger people. .
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It took guts, but a late overtime goal against Jenks put the T-Wolves into the National Finals game against Mustang, the same team that ended its season last year.
The two teams previously met earlier this season, a game the T-Wolves won 1-0.
“I told the boys this is what you have to remember,” Benalioulhaj said. “Yes we beat them 1-0 but the last time when it really mattered in a playoff game they wiped the floor with us.
“I think the state sees this as an outsider. I think a lot of teams in the state think we have an easy path to the playoffs. They think we shouldn’t be here. They think Mustang is a better team than us and will win and I agree they believe that. Because that means we have to go prove it. and I think we can go prove it, but we have to go earn it. It is not given to us and I prefer to work from this outsider position.
Of course, the T-Wolves want to win the #7 Championship. But for Dionisio, a win on Saturday would mean something bigger.
“I think this is the year we re-establish that we are the best football school in the state,” Dionisio said.