A view from my side.
It rained overnight. There was some question as to whether we’d be playing on turf or grass. They waited until an hour before match time to make the decision and grass it was. The pitch was in great shape. There had been just enough rain overnight to “settle” some of the damage from the tournament. It was smooth. It was green. It was vibrant. It was as though the pitch itself was inviting us to play.
I love the feeling of walking out onto a well maintained playing surface before a Championship match. There is truly nothing like it. All of the work. All of the effort. All of the hours of planning and training and playing. To get to this moment. To reach the moment where everyone else is watching you play. Watching your team perform. For competitive athletes it is a powerful a rush. Those of you that have experienced it know what I am talking about. Those of of you that haven’t, I truly feel sorry for you.
Both sides went undefeated through Round Robin play to earn the right to play today. Both sides had injuries. Both sides were tired. But both sides were excited. Both sides were pumped up. And both sides wanted to win. You could see it in the warm ups. You could sense it in their movement. You could smell it in the air.
The match was hard fought. When you get to this level, you don’t sub much. This is not an “everybody plays, everybody gets a trophy at the end” kind of play. At this level, there are winners and there is everyone else. This is competitive soccer. You play through whatever ails you and if you have to come off, chances are you won’t be going back on.
Both sides were physical and the ref let the boys play. He called what needed to be called, but as he told the captains at the coin toss, “play my whistle and I hope you won’t hear it often.” They didn’t. We didn’t pull out of tackles. We went in hard and fast. They did the same. Every now and then, the whistle blew, but not often. This was a fast match. There was very little reserved, slow play. The ball didn’t stop moving much at all.
We each had a few opportunities in the first half, but nothing to seriously challenge until the last 15 minutes. They brought the ball down and put up a beautiful cross. One of our defenders was caught out of position and his man was unmarked inside the box. He got his head on the ball and hit it high, over the crossbar. Bullet dodged.
A few minutes later, we found ourselves on a counter attack, stealing a poorly played ball in deep in our middle third. A quick pass to the attacking midfielder followed by a ball through the defenders to a striker making diagonal run behind a center back. He was on, one v one, against the keeper. The keeper stepped and for some reason, our striker played the ball across his body rather than simply pushing it to the outside. The keeper made the save and the half ended, tied, 0-0.
The second half kicks off and we drive deep, in the opening seconds. Trying to take advantage of the quick start, we cross the ball into the box. Unfortunately, it goes high and harmlessly off the end line. Play goes on, a battle between the 18’s. The press us, take the ball inside, our keeper makes the save. We drive on them, take a shot, put it wide. It goes back and forth like this the rest of the match. Both sides have one or two real opportunities, but both keepers come up with truly great saves. Body extended, off the ground, arms stretched out, deflecting the ball kinds of saves. It’s what you go to a match to see. The second half ends, tied 0-0.
Next we have the overtime periods. Two, five minute periods, if necessary. This is “Golden Goal.” You score, you win. Again, the play is the same. The boys are not as quick. Their touch is not as soft. They don’t press the attack as much. You can see the exhaustion in their faces and when, a ball cleared off the pitch for a goal kick or a throw in, they rest with their hands on their knees for the few seconds it takes the ball boy to put another ball in play. Both sides are worn down, but neither is willing to concede the match. We end the two overtime periods tied, 0-0.
Now we go to penalty kicks. Or, more accurately since no fouls have been committed, Kicks from the Mark. Each side gets 5. If, at the end of those 5 we are still tied, it moves on to individual one from each team, in pairs. If you miss your’s and they make their’s…match over. If not, the next pair steps up. We win the coin toss and elect to kick first.
We drill this in practice. We run hard sprints at the end of practice to tire the boys out. Then set up for Kicks from the Mark. We find our “5” players using that drill. We don’t use a keeper though. We set two balls on the ground, 4 feet in from either post. All 5 of the players taking the shots in this drill have to hit their shot in between the ball and the post. If they don’t, everyone runs sprints. The pressure is on to make the kick. Only when all 5 place their shot between the ball and the post, does practice end.
Our boys are confident. Our boys are relaxed. Our boys have been here. They’ve made this kick under pressure before. They know what to do, how to do it, and are ready for it.
We step up, whistle blows, we hit the ball, the ball hits the net. Everyone sighs a bit in relief now that the first one is in and the pressure is on the other side to catch up. Their player steps up, the whistle blows and he buries his shot in the corner. Nicely placed, we are tied 1-1. We make our next shot easily. Their player sends his ball towering over the goal. He could have scored a field goal with that one. Advantage us, 2-1.
Our turn again. Our man steps to the mark, places the ball and waits the ref’s signal. Whistle blows, he hits it and it finds side netting. A perfect shot. Their turn. The man steps up and places the ball. He looks up and to his right for a split second. Our keeper sees it and is ready. The whistle blows, the player steps, hitting the ball to his right. Our keeper is already on the way, diving out and making the save. We are up, 3-1, with two kicks left to play.
Now the mathematics come in to play. If we make our next kick, match over. If we miss and they miss, match over. We have to miss and they have to convert to force the 5th kick. Our player steps up. A senior mid fielder. Not the best player in our starting 11, but a solid player. I smile, knowing he’s never missed a PK in practice this season.
He steps and places the ball. The whistle blows. He approaches and his foot hits it. All we see is the keeper on the ground and a ball in the back of the net. He buries it to his left, match over. After 3 wins in the Round Robin and then a regulation match, two overtime periods, and 7 Kicks from the Mark…We win. Four matches in 5 days and the Trophy is ours.
My hat is off to the other team. Those boys came to play and they had heart. They had spirit. They had determination. They wanted to win as much as we did and they never let their guard down. They never let up and they never rested. But even more so, they played “clean.” They didn’t take cheap shots. They didn’t take cheap fouls. They didn’t “dive”. This is a side I have a great deal of respect for. I shared that with their coach and their captains. I would sign up to play them again any time we had the opportunity to do so. Hopefully, we can schedule a match next season and start a tradition between the two schools.
We take tomorrow off and play Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. A hard, tough schedule. But our Mid Season Restart has been a resounding success. We are ready to finish the season now and we are ready make our run at the State Title. We’ve been in the Championship match 3 out of the last 4 years. We won it only once. But we’d like to again. We’ll see.
Tonight…I dined out. 😀