PCR's Historic Journey to Sectionals Victory
When Head Soccer Coach, John Reilly, started coaching the Providence Cristo Rey High School Wolves two years ago, he was ready for something different. After years of playing and then coaching in an ultra-competitive environment, the game he loved had been tainted by the intensity and the high pressure that have come to affect so many athletic programs around the country.
But coming to Providence Cristo Rey, all that was about to change.
“Right when I came here it was different,” Coach Reilly said. “It was a smaller team, and the fact that freshman and seniors can not only exist together, but actually be friends was just refreshing. So yeah, it’s been a really great experience here so far.”
As Coach Reilly set to work with his new group of players, the culture on the team steadily began to change.
“A couple of years ago you had kids who would come and work hard, but you knew they weren’t working to their highest potential,” Coach Reilly explained. “They would come up with excuses as to why they can’t do that last sprint in practice.”
“Now though, that’s just gone.”
After disappointing ends to the last two seasons, this year, the Wolves had something to prove.
“Last year when we lost to Lutheran, I told coach I was going to have 20 goals and that we were going to win Sectionals,” said senior Co-captain, Bryan Jara-Arteaga.
Bryan transferred to PCR his sophomore year from Mooresville High School when his family moved to Indy. However, he didn’t join PCR’s soccer team until his junior year.
“I didn’t play my sophomore year because I didn’t know if I was good enough,” he said sheepishly. “And that whole year, I literally trained so much. I remember playing in the snow just to get better. And then junior year came, and I didn’t think I was going to score that many goals since I came in not really knowing tactics and all that.”
But with the help of Coach Reilly, that rapidly began to change. Bryan went from watching on the sidelines to becoming the team’s lead scorer this season with 23 goals and 4 assists. Not only that, but Bryan's stellar performance this season even earned him city and state-wide recognition; he was recently both nominated as one of Indiana's MaxPreps High School Athletes of the Week and named to the 2021 All City Team.
The Wolves opened their 2021 season one with a 6-0 victory against Tindley and never looked back, winning game after game until finally making it to the Sectionals Tournament with an incredible regular season record of 10 wins and 2 losses.
Coach Reilly says that the shift in team culture has had a lot to do with their overall performance.
“I think realizing that they can win is the biggest part because two years ago if we won it was such a surprise. But now we almost expect to win, which is such a huge difference. I think part of our problem was that we were used to being the underdog all the time and didn’t know how to be the favorite.”
But that, he says, is finally starting to happen.
The team’s other co-captain, Emanuel Najera watched both of his older brothers play high school soccer with dreams of sectional championships that never came to fruition. But he was determined to end his senior season differently. After years of hard work and his fair share of frustration, he entered his second year as co-captain, ready to get things right.
“I wanted to everything to perfect in my perspective. How in shape I was, what I was eating, how I would practice, how to interact,” Emanuel said.
The team worked extremely hard over the course of the season to improve their conditioning and skill level.
“We’d do things that they hate like – I’d have them plank and would say, ‘You’ll go until I say stop.’ And at the start of the season, they’d start going and it would only be a minute or two,” Coach Reilly said.
“But by the end of the season they could push themselves. We had a competition, and they were holding a plank for 10 or 12 minutes straight, which is crazy – it’s stuff that I’d just die doing, but they’re doing it. It was just really great to see how hard they all worked because they all wanted to achieve the same goals.”
As the Wolves pulled out win after win, the desire to bring home the Sectional trophy for the first time in school history grew stronger and stronger – and so too did the team’s faith that they could make it happen.
“Ever since I saw how much the team has improved, I knew we were going to win Sectionals,” Bryan said. “I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because the teams we played were really hard, but I knew we had a chance and that we were probably going to take it.”
Sure enough, PCR’s Sectional Tournament started with a nail-biting, 2-day win against Lutheran, their arch-rival of years past, that ended in a win by penalty kicks thanks to a stunning performance by freshman goalie Aaron Najera, Emanuel’s younger brother.
The game started on a Wednesday night with storm clouds looming ominously on the horizon. A small cohort of stalwart PCR fans cheered the Wolves on from Lutheran’s stands. Although Bryan got the game of to a strong start with an early goal, lightening was spotted, forcing the game to stall for the 30-minute mandatory safety period. Lutheran was then able to equalize late into the second half, and with a heart-stopping 2 minutes and 47 seconds left, the game was again suspended as rain began to pour from the sky and thunder shook the stands.
Much to everyone’s dismay, the final minutes of the game were postponed until the next day, where the tied game picked up, finishing with two periods of overtime ending again in a scoreless draw. Then it was down to penalty kicks, where Aaron’s three saves propelled the Wolves to victory.
That win pushed the team to their final hurdle between them and the Sectionals trophy, their match against Covenant Christian, a school with a very strong soccer program and a previous State Tournament win to prove it.
But even Covenant proved to be no match for the Wolves. In another match that ended in penalty kicks after 94 minutes of scoreless play, the Wolves achieved what no sports team at Providence Cristo Rey ever had before – a Sectionals victory.
“It felt like I was living a dream because I’ve seen the past seniors wanting to win Sectionals their last year and it never happen. So, when Luis kicked that last penalty shot and it went in and the final whistle blew, I couldn’t believe it,” Emanuel said, shaking his head in continued disbelief.
For Coach Reilly, who came in with the goal of taking this team to a Sectionals win, the feeling was just as sweet.
“The past two seasons, just their disappointment,” he recalled. “I hate giving that speech at the end where you talk about how great the season was, but then you don’t really have that thing to hold onto. So, when we won that game, it was just a great feeling. Especially for Bryan and Emanuel as seniors to go out with something like this.”
The win made PCR the only one out of only six schools in Marion County and one of just two teams in the 15-team City Alliance to win their Sectionals Championship.
“I felt like a lot of people were surprised,” Bryan said, “but our team wasn’t because we knew what we could do. I feel like we could have gone a little further, I mean things happen, but I felt good holding that trophy and having it here in the school because it shows all the hard work we put in.”
Although the team lost their Regionals Semi-Final match-up against Southwestern in a close 2-1 game, they have plenty to be proud of and to look forward to. With the goal of winning Sectionals attained, Coach Reilly is setting his team’s sights higher for next year’s season.
“Honestly, I think winning Regionals is underselling how good we were because if you look at the teams we played and could have played in that next round, we were probably better than both. So, next year I don’t just want to say let’s win Regionals because I think we could do better than that,” he said confidently.
“Now, I don’t want to just say that next year we’re winning the state championship or anything like that, but I think it’s a realistic goal to say we could at least get that far. Even with just the kids that we have now, I think we’re good enough to at least get past Regionals, and then, of course, you never know what happens after that.”
As for the senior Co-captains, with their last season behind them, both Bryan and Emanuel are sad to be leaving their high school soccer days and their teammates behind. But both are considering playing college ball after they graduate from PCR in the spring.
Their coach has no doubt that they could both go far.
“Both of them certainly have the ability to go on and keep playing in college,” he said proudly. “I think Emanuel wants to a little more, but both of them certainly could. I told them that they have the skill level to play at the highest level. I have no doubt about that.”