Three months ago, Riverside High School’s Jack Wagoner fell to his knees to celebrate at Irmo High School, soaking up the Warriors’ 4-0 win over Lexington in the AAAAAA State Championship game.
On Wednesday he got on a bus to St. Louis and tried to round off a magical summer with a national championship.
Wagoner is a member of the Carolina Elite Soccer Association (CESA) U-17 team, which has qualified for national championships at the club level.
He was one of three CESA teams that qualified for the tournament, with eight teams per age group, hosted by the Elite Clubs National League.
The teams U-17, U-16 and U-15 qualified for the national tournament.
After a season was canceled due to COVID-19 last year, the return to the field has proven to be a wild ride that Wagoner will not soon forget.
“I took a step back and thought about how crazy a year would be for me,” he said. “On the way to St. Louis, I try to reject a little and take it from game to game.”
Christ Church’s Hampton Hughes, who plays in the U-16 team, was on the same field at Irmo three months earlier, celebrating the Cavaliers’ dominant AA state championship run with his teammates and fans.
While he was winning a state championship, something clicked when he saw the national tournament group.
It was the last game on the schedule, Sunday, correctly listed as a national championship.
“The state was great, it was really fun. High school and club soccer are very different, club soccer is definitely more professional, but high school is something you can’t really get anywhere else,” he said. “It didn’t hit me until I looked at the bracket and saw where it said ‘national championship’. I just thought, wow, that’s a really big deal, you’re at the top of the country.”
It’s been a season that has been very successful for Upstate national-level soccer teams, but U-16 and U-17 coach Russell Shelley said there won’t be anything like the competition that the players at St. Ludwig’s.
The individual elimination starts on Thursday for the U-15 team, while the U-16 and U-17 teams play on Friday.
Hughes mother, Melissa Hughes, will take the 10 hour drive with the rest of her family to cheer her son on. It’s much further than going to Columbia for the state championship game, but she said her family are happy to do so.
“Especially after a disappointing 2020, it is just great to see as parents. You live a little bit through your children as parents and almost feel a little more excited than if you were yourself, ”she said. “It’s like going to these cities with 16 of your closest friends, it makes it pleasant and entertaining. Maybe I wouldn’t say the same thing if I didn’t have such a great relationship with the other parents. “
She is also the director of educational technology at Christ Church, where her son plays. She has worked at the school for 22 years and recalls when the Cavaliers won eleven consecutive state championships from 2001 to 2011.
Now she has found another memory from Christ Church watching her son celebrate as champion in the Columbia field.
“To see the excitement for football come back to school and have a son on the team was just great,” she said. “I worked here before he was born and I never imagined my child would be out there one day.”
With an appearance at the national championships, she said the summer of celebrations may not end when they arrive in St. Louis.
“This team is a real family and I’m a little biased, but they really care and support each other,” she said. “There is a difference between playing on the field and other teams. What I see from other teams is that sometimes internal disputes arise, they start falling apart and criticizing each other, and that doesn’t happen with our guys. “
It’s been a season that has been very successful for upstate football teams at the state level, but Shelley said there won’t be anything like the competition that the players will see in St. Louis.
The tournament is accompanied by several college coaches.
“Most of the players who play at our ECNL will have the opportunity to play collegially at a certain level,” he said. “The quality of the games and the competition they face will help them become better players … they will be able to see the game through a more physical, tactical and technical lens.”
The pressures of the moment don’t scare Nzhuri Biggar of Oakbrook Prep, who helped the Knights win the SCISA State Class AA Championship earlier this year.
The member of the U-15 team sees his experience in big games as something that can help CESA move forward in the tournament.
“It’s pretty exciting, it means a lot more than a state championship,” Biggar said of the national tournament. “Your nerves will be raging as always. I’ve been to games like this and at the national championships I know my nerves are up there and I hope I use them well. “
The U-17 team will play against a club from San Diego, the U-16 against a team from Houston and the U-15 against a team from Seattle. All of the tournament’s markets are significantly larger than Greenville which, according to Hughes, is exactly what they prefer.
“It says a lot for little Greenville, South Carolina to do this while the only other team that can do it is a Dallas team and we’re competing with the whole nation,” he said. “It’s not something we’re afraid of. I feel like people who look from the outside see Greenville versus Los Angeles or Greenville versus Dallas and think we’d be intimidated, at the end of the day it’s a soccer game. We have what it takes to hold our own against anyone, and we prove it. “