Mather soccer coach Branko Cvijovic is still reveling in the aftermath of his team's monumental victory in the Class 2A championship in November. And he can't help but think about what the only Chicago Public League winner since 1973 can do for an encore in 2012.
"I love the feeling at the end of the season to see everybody is still there," Cvijovic said. "You start in the heat in August and end in the cold and wind in October. You look around and see they still are around and it's a good feeling. They are healthy and have fun and if they accomplish something, that's a bonus."
Cvijovic, 50, grew up playing soccer in his native Montenegro. He played for an organized club, a second-tier team, and always felt he could coach the game he loved better than he could play it. After he came to the United States in 1989, he got an opportunity to prove he was right.
He arrived at Mather on Chicago's North Side 10 years ago. He coached the frosh-soph team to the city title in 2002 and guided the junior varsity to the city final in 2004. This year, he was named head coach of the varsity. From the first day of practice, he had a different approach.
"Everywhere else but here, in this country, the core of the game is to have fun, to let everyone have an individual style but to not hurt the team concept, especially at the amateur level. In high school, you aren't paid to play. You should do it for fun," Cvijovic said.
"I don't know if it is fun here but the approach in different sports is to play to win as opposed to having fun. There is too much pressure from coaches and parents. You even see it at the national level.
"My philosophy? I love to see the technical ability of the player. Let him do what he might not have an opportunity to do. Dedicate some time during practice for free time, fun time. Let them play and enjoy the game. That's my style -- let them play and have fun, even if it isn't practical. Let them enjoy the game."
Mather's drive to the school's first state championship in any sport is a feel-good story, a first-year coach molding the attitudes and styles and personalities of teenagers from five continents and nine nationalities into a cohesive unit that came together in a relative short period of time.
The 21-member squad, which included players from Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bosnia and Mexico, started on Aug. 10 and only missed two practices in three months. A dozen played on last year's team that lost to Maine West in a Class 3A sectional final.
"From day one I believed there was great potential," Cvijovic said. "That's why I took the job. They need to work hard and come to practice and enjoy the game. But we are here to achieve great things.
"I saw them play last year when I wasn't coaching. I saw they had great talent. I saw a blend of styles and talent and stuff I enjoyed watching. I inherited a great team but I had to work hard to get them to believe in themselves and to develop team spirit and team cohesiveness. That's what they lacked last year. They didn't play together. They didn't know each other, being from five continents. They didn't know how to blend their styles and strengths. There was too much individualism.
"I wanted all of them to know that we shouldn't be happy with small things, that we are capable of doing great things. I didn't mention state but, deep down, I felt we could win state."
Mission accomplished. The Rangers, led by senior Qudus Lawal, crushed Chatham Glenwood 6-0 to win the state title and complete a 21-3-1 season. Lawal, the lone Public League selection on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area team and one of five Nigerians on the team, scored a record four goals in the final, including three in the second half (two within a span of 17 seconds) as Mather broke away from a 1-0 halftime lead. He finished with 41 goals for the season.
"Skill-wise, I wouldn't be surprised if Lawal plays professionally," Cvijovic told veteran Chicago newspaper reporter John Montgomery. "I've never seen anybody use his body on a soccer field as well as he does to make the plays (to score goals). He is a skilled player. It's hard to guard him on the field. You have to have more than just skill."
In a recent EastWest all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, Lawal scored two goals and assisted on a third as his West team won 3-2.
"He is one of the five best players in the country. And nobody knew about him until this year. In three months, he achieved it all. He became the best player in the state, the player of the year," Cvijovic said. "He wants to go to college. He has so many offers. He is a very good and very unorthodox player. You can't tell until you see him play the game and what he produces."
So what about next year? Lawal and seven other starters will graduate. Only three starters will return.
Cvijovic said junior Kenan Alihodzic, a Bosnian, will be next year's leader. An outstanding defender and very mature, he played centerforward as a freshman. "He has great potential," the coach said.
The other returning starters are junior Godman Eseh, a centermidfielder from Nigeria, and sophomore goalie Edwin Vazquez, a Mexican who had a hand in the team's nine shutouts in 2011.
Much is expected from Mahdi Mahdi, a centermidfielder who was the only freshman on the varsity last season, and sophomore Andres Torrez. "Both have potential to be very good players," Cvijovic said.
"We will be competitive but we won't be as good (as this year)," Cvijovic said. "It will be more of a challenge next year. Everyone wants to play us. We have a target on our backs. There will be more pressure on our team.
"But not much was expected of us last season, especially from a city team in the state tournament. We made a name for ourselves. Now suburban teams will have more respect for us. In the past, suburban and Downstate teams wanted to play city teams because they didn't think we were good enough. And we lost 10-0 and 11-0. It was a great lesson for our kids to see what organized soccer is."