Editor's note: This is the first in a seven-part series that takes a look back at some of the greatest sports teams from our local high schools. One team from DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston, Hinckley-Big Rock, Kaneland, Hiawatha and Indian Creek will be featured in the weekly series.
In sports, it’s not all about talent. Sometimes, you need more. Sometimes it’s about will, chemistry and a little bit of good fortune. The 1998 DeKalb boys soccer team had plenty of talent, but those other intangibles all came together, as well.
When that happened, the result was the first state finals appearance for the Barbs soccer program, and despite DeKalb’s recent success, it is a feat that has not since been matched.
Starting from the bottom
Winning programs don’t just fall into place. They must start from scratch and be built up. It’s a process that takes time, patience and plenty of effort.
The DeKalb boys soccer team fits that mold exactly. Started in 1980, the team was built up by John Bati, who coached the team for 15 seasons before stepping down.
Jay Smith was next to take over the program, and he knew he needed to start building talent early on, so he brought in the man who eventually would take the team further than ever before.
“The first thing I did (after becoming coach) is I hired Mark Castro,” Smith said. “He had played through DeKalb High School, a great young man. He was the first phone call I made to get an assistant coach who would come in and start a club, and that was the start of Spectre.”
Spectre Soccer Club was the first organization in DeKalb other than AYSO where kids could play soccer before high school, and it took the players as far as France and Holland to play against high-level competition. It was that club that produced the core of the ’98 team.
According to Ben Manning, a junior midfielder and backup goaltender on that team, it was one of the main reasons the Barbs made it as far as they did.
“All of us had been playing together for so long, and we were just a real cohesive unit,” Manning said. “[Castro] just developed all of us players through that club. Without him, without that club, I don’t think we would’ve ever gotten to where we did.”
Putting it together
After three seasons at the helm, Smith handed the head coaching reins over to Castro before the ’98 season while staying on as an assistant. The Barbs were coming off two unremarkable years, but Spectre talent still was making its way into the fold.
The team was a mix, not dominated by any one class. While the juniors and seniors had the most experience, there also were several sophomores who came into the mix, as well.
During the regular season, the team showed it meant business in the Upstate Eight Conference. Its five losses might not have been one typical of a state-final-qualifying team, but the team had to go up against powerhouses such as Waubonsie Valley and St. Charles, which was coming off of two straight state titles and undefeated seasons. In the postseason, DeKalb played in Class A, the smaller of the IHSA’s two classes for soccer that season.
“We only had about 1,000 students, but we were competing against schools with 2,000 to 4,000 students,” said Phil Coover, a junior midfielder that season. “That conference play really prepared us well so we were used to playing against greater competition.”
The competition not only made the Barbs better, but it brought them closer as a unit. Before their biggest games, the Barbs had spaghetti dinners, and they even started a tradition of dying there hair blond before sectionals. Even some of the fathers joined in once the team qualified for states.
With bright hair and determined minds, DeKalb roared through the postseason, winning sectionals and super-sectionals before having to meet up with heavily favored Benet Academy. Benet’s midfielders dominated, and they pressured constantly, but DeKalb’s defense did its job. Said Coover of goalkeeper John Hall, “They couldn’t get a goal by him.”
After extra time, the score was deadlocked at 1, forcing penalty kicks. The Barbs stepped up and delivered, and Benet Academy was rattled by Hall. He saved Benet’s first three shots and DeKalb clinched the historic victory.
“It was a big surprise for everyone,” Manning said. “I just remember utter joy. I don’t think any of us had ever had a moment like that in our lives. It was just pure excitement.”
The journey ended in the first game of the state finals, where DeKalb fell, 6-0, to Sacred Heart-Griffin. It was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, considering how the Cyclones were led by future Illinois placekicker and soccer star Peter Christofilakos.
The team’s success helped to solidify the program’s winning mentality. Since that season, DeKalb boys soccer has a combined record of 153-104-28.
Still, even with all that success, none of those teams has matched the success of the bleached-blonde Barbs.
1998 DeKalb boys soccer
Road to the state tournament
defeated Indian Creek, 9-0
defeated Earlville, 3-1
defeated Hinckley-Big Rock, 2-1 (2 OT)
defeated Benet Academy, 2-1 (PKs)
lost to Sacred Heart-Griffin, 6-0