Phil Savitz has been on hand for parts of four decades of success as the boys soccer coach at Irmo.
The veteran coach says the recently completed 2013 season might be at the top of his personal highlights list. His final Yellow Jackets squad limped through an unimpressive regular season, but put together a brilliant postseason run to claim the program’s 16th state championship.
It was the 14th state title under Savitz, who went 634-83-5 in 33 seasons, and puts the Irmo boys soccer program among The State’s Dozen Prep Dynasties in the Midlands.
“We started the season with a young, inexperienced team and I really had no idea what to expect,” Savitz said. “We lost our first three games without scoring a goal in a preseason tournament. We lost the last three games in the regular season. Blythewood and us took turns giving the region championship back before we finally won it. We were the first Irmo team to lose to Chapin and the first Irmo team to lose on Senior Night.
“It’s safe to say that we never did establish an identity.”
All that changed in the state playoffs. Perhaps it was motivation to send Savitz, who is leaving to launch the program at first-year River Bluff High next season, out a winner. Maybe it was just a case of a team having it all come together at the right time.
“I’ve used up every adjective trying to explain it, but none do this any justice,” said Savitz. “I challenged the team to make their mark in the playoffs. I knew they were better than they showed during the regular season, and darn if they didn’t go out and do it.”
Irmo finished the regular season as a No. 1 seed thanks to its Region 4-4A championship, but had eight losses on the books – matching the program’s all-time, single-season high. The team was in line to become the losingest Irmo side ever, but it never happened. The Yellow Jackets went 5-0 on the way to the state championship, allowing just two goals along the way. Irmo beat Lexington, another surprise finalist, 2-1 in a penalty-kick shootout in the finale.
Not only was this team under the burden of a Savitz farewell tour and the considerable weight of program tradition, it also had to overcome the program’s recent history of failing to deliver when it mattered the most.
“Like it or not, a team is judged by what it does in the postseason,” said Savitz.
Since Irmo’s 2004 championship season, the Jackets went eight years without a title – the longest such drought in program history. Irmo lost in the finals three years in a row (2009-11), losing its only games of the season in the 2009 and 2011 in the finals while being ranked No. 1 in the country.
“Those were very talented, committed teams, but it never happened for them,” said Savitz. “Maybe being ranked No. 1 in the country was a distraction. This team had no such expectations when the playoffs began.
“But something obviously clicked for this group of players, whatever the reason. We found ways to lose in the regular season. In the playoffs, we stopped making silly mistakes in our own end, we stopped taking unnecessary fouls, and we were able to clear balls much more efficiently. We were markedly better defensively as a team. It wasn’t a case of one or two key guys stepping up and carrying the load. It was a collective improvement through attention to detail.”
Senior captain Mattison Gossett and sophomore keeper Hunter Wages, however, did stand out . Gossett, an anchor player on defense, scored two game-winning goals in penalty kick shootouts, including the title-clincher against Lexington. Wages and the Irmo defense posted three shutouts and surrendered two goals on five playoff outings – an amazing turnaround considering Yellow Jackets coughed up 21 goals in 20 matches prior to the playoffs.
“The goal of every team is to be playing its best soccer of the season in the playoffs, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” said Savitz. “There’s no doubt that this team was at its best at the right time.”
Savitz now turns his attention to a new challenge.
“There are definitely mixed feelings,” he said. “I am very much looking forward to coaching a brand new program, but I also will miss Irmo where I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life. The soccer program became an extended family with so many friends and alumni keeping in touch through the years.
“Hopefully, we can build the same kind of culture at River Bluff, which is a good soccer area.”
Savitz closes the Irmo chapter of his career ranked No. 1 in South Carolina soccer in career wins, state championships and state championship game appearances (23). He is one of eight coaches nationally who have surpassed 600 career wins. Only six coaches in South Carolina history have guided more state championship teams than Savitz, only one – Gary Adams of Crescent with 19 title teams in softball – has more with a single program.
He is the third most decorated prep coach in Midlands history, trailing only Bill Porter and Catherine Lempesis. Porter guided the Irmo boys tennis program to 10 state championships and the girls to eight. Lempesis has 17 girls track and girls cross country titles on her resume – 14 at Spring Valley, two at Ridge View and one at Lexington.
COMING MONDAY: The Lexington girls golf team.
As we publish more entries to this series, you’ll be able to find them by clicking this link.
Irmo boys soccer state championships:
PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Irmo players named Gatorade players of the year in S.C.:
Ryan Kurtz, Midfield (1988)
Page Jordan, Midfield (1989)
Ward Harriford, Forward (1990)
Jeff Hendrix, Forward (1998)
Emmett Lunceford, Midfield (2010)
Teams that have won the most South Carolina state championships:
24 - Christ Church boys tennis
23 - Bishop England volleyball
19 - Crescent softball
17 – Bishop England girls tennis
16 – IRMO BOYS SOCCER
16 – Bishop England boys soccer
16 – Gaffney football
15 – Rock Hill wrestling
15 – T.L. Hanna boys track
15 – Bamberg-Ehrhardt baseball
S.C. coaches who have won the most state championships:
21 – Gary Adams, Crescent softball, boys basketball
18 – Bill Porter, Irmo tennis
17 – Catherine Lempesis, Spring Valley/Ridge View/Lexington cross country, track
17 – Jim Barnes, Airport/Rock Hill wrestling
16 – Tony Colizzi, Bishop England cross country, track
16 – Willie Varner, Woodruff football, baseball, girls basketball
15 – Patricia Owens, Bishop England tennis
14 – PHIL SAVITZ, IRMO BOYS SOCCER
14 – Willie Wooden, Riverside cross country
14 – David Horton, Bamberg-Ehrhardt baseball
13 – Delmer Howell, Mauldin cross country, track
13 – Peggy Anthony, Pickens volleyball
13 – William Hosea, Riverside/J.L. Mann soccer, tennis
Irmo’s soccer record under coach Phil Savitz: