Three years ago Mike Catalano was just getting used to making his away around the halls of his new school, Lake Park.
He also was making a name for himself on the soccer pitch, earning all-Upstate Eight Conference honors, playing for legendary coach Norm Hillner.
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Catalano didn't return to the Lancers as a sophomore, despite helping them to a successful, 10-7-7, season in 2010. Instead he went back to his club team, Chicago Magic, and committed himself to landing a spot at a major college program.
He also made a promise.
"I told the guys that if I committed before senior year then I'd be back," he said. "I knew I couldn't miss out on the exposure at all the showcases, but I was also hopeful it would work out and be able to come back."
Things have changed in a short time at Lake Park. Hillner retired after 28 years as coach and is now the director of operations for the Northwestern men's soccer team and Anthony Passi is coaching the Lancers. Lake Park is also no longer a member of the Upstate Eight Conference, having moved on to the DuPage Valley Conference, arguably the toughest soccer conference in the state.
Oh, and Catalano made good on his promise, returning to the Lancers after committing to Wisconsin and leading them to an extraordinary season, winning the DVC and claiming a regional title. They took an 18-2-3 mark into sectional play.
Catalano was as dominant a scorer in the area this season and his addition to the lineup allowed Lake Park to go from a 9-12-2 team in 2012 to one that seriously has to be considered in the discussion as one of the top squads in the state.
For everything he's brought to the Lancers, Catalano, an all-state selection, is the captain of the 2013 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area boys soccer team.
"I've said it many times that games are won or lost in the midfield and with Mike we've won the battle in the midfield all season long," Passi said. "He's just a tremendous talent. There really isn't anyone else who can do the things he can do and he does everything so smoothly."
Catalano is only listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds, but appears to play bigger than that, but with the speed and dribbling ability of someone far smaller. It's made him all the more difficult to stop. Not only has he scored time and time again this year, but he's also been quite the distributor, helping make guys like Giovanni Ciaccio, Oliver Horgan, Kris Lopez and Lorenzo Mariani, among others, even better.
Fellow senior Joe Keane, also a two-time Daily Herald All-Area team selection, has been thrilled to play alongside Catalano.
"I love it because it's an extra weapon up there," Keane said. "Obviously, we can attack out of the midfield, but with the throw-in, it just adds an extra dimension to our game, and Mike is just an absolute beast in there. Nobody wins the ball over him. He's a beast."
It's not just his teammates that call him a beast, or something like beast. After scoring twice and adding an assist in a 4-0 win against West Aurora, it was Blackhawks coach Joe Sustersic who referred to him as a monster.
"(Catalano) is a monster," he said. "He's a man among boys, plays mature and plays skilled. What I'm impressed with is that he's not worried about setting his own play up. He's more worried about getting his teammates involved."
He did plenty of both during the regular season, scoring 27 times and assisting on 8 goals.
"I love the game and have been playing since I was really 4 years old," Catalano said. "It's something I have always been really good at and I keep driving myself to get better."
And when he's not playing, he's often watching, choosing Spanish Premier League action over MTV and movies.
"I love watching it and I'd prefer to watch a high school soccer game than high school football," he said. "I really can't explain it other than that I like watching the best players in the world playing and I love working on my game, I mean, I've had some great coaches help me get to where I'm at today."
He also wants to show the disbelievers that he's legit. He doesn't want to just play Division I soccer but shine on that big stage.
"I know when I get to Wisconsin that people will have a target on my back and will think I'm all hype and stuff like that," he said. "That's OK, though. I'll be a man marked, but it will just push you harder. We're making some noise now and want to beat Hinsdale (Central) and Naperville (Central) and show that maybe we've been overlooked."
Perhaps Lake Park has been overlooked a bit this season, but there's no overlooking the beast in Catalano. He's driven to play at an even higher level than where's he's at now, which is scary.
The Big Ten better get ready. The Beast is coming.