Final Four (Part 2)

       I learned a lot in my four years of soccer at the University of Pittsburgh. My soccer IQ increased drastically in my last 2 and a half years. Thinking back on it now, it’s absolutely insane that I got to play for a coaching staff of that caliber. I was recruited by mostly Division III schools in high school. I didn’t play for a very high-level club. The high school I went to was not on the map for soccer, at least not since the 90s. I got to Pitt mostly because, like my year at West Chester, things just seemed to fall into place.

        I’d say the two main differences, in my experience, between Pitt and West Chester was resources and intensity. Resources was to be expected. By this, I mean gear, equipment, etc. At Pitt, we were stocked with gear every preseason. This meant training shirts (short sleeve and long sleeve) shorts, pants, crewnecks, cleats and for me multiple pairs of goalkeeper gloves. We had access to our facility whenever we wanted with the swipe of our Pitt IDs. We trained in our stadium every day and our locker room was not even 100 yards from the field. The weight room had state-of-the-art equipment that was strictly for athletes. After the weight room, there was the beginning of what is now an even bigger operation known as Pitt Fuel where we could get protein shakes, Gatorade, chocolate milk all for pre and post training fuel.

         At West Chester, we did get gear, but a lot of it I had to supply myself (gloves, cleats, tights and compression gear). Our locker room was in a big building that was up the street from our field, so we would go to the locker room first then walk or drive to the field. The weight room doubled as the weight room for athletics and for the general student population. There was a part of me that was used to all of the players looking the same for training/travel/games, but sometimes that just wasn’t viable at West Chester. Now does all of this matter? No, not really. I just wanted to give a sense of what the differences actually are between schools in the different divisions. There really is no way to know from the outside looking in. At the end of the day, both teams play for the same thing and that is to win and to keep winning for as long as possible.

          The difference in intensity was not something I expected. Training at Pitt was always business. Guys would rip into each other on the field. But it was never personal, unless someone made it personal which really never happened. No matter what happened, it was sorted out on the field and once we walked off, it was all good. There was no lasting beef, at least that I’m aware of, because of arguments on the field.

          When I got to be around 14-15, my coaches started telling me that I needed to be more demanding of my teammates in front of me. Goalkeepers are known for having a screw loose, per say. And I shouldn’t be afraid to lose my s*** when necessary. If you’ve never played meaningful minutes as a goalkeeper, you’d understand that if the players in front of you make bad decisions, it makes more work for you. Of course, this is part of the job. Prior to college, I used to blow up on my team when we conceded goals. I absolutely hated getting scored on. Going into college, this didn’t change, but I toned it down a lot because I knew my place as a freshman/underclassman. I eventually made it my goal to just be as positive as possible. If someone made a mistake, I always tried to give them a “that’s alright, next one” meaning what’s done is done, let’s move on. Soccer is a game of mistakes. Goalkeepers should know that better than anyone. Now as long as someone was trying to play correctly and elevate the standard and they made a mistake, it was always a positive response. I can’t say it’s the same when it’s just a dumb decision that was made. And when I say dumb decision, I mean something that would never even be attempted in an actual game. Stuff like that, I couldn’t tolerate.

       I will never forget. It was my third or fourth day in West Chester. Prior to preseason, we trained at a local high school. We were finishing the session with some small-sided games. I think it was 5v5, double-18 to full sized goals. There were 3 teams and 4 GKs so each GK wasn’t on a team. We would switch out whenever we got scored on. Obviously, my goal was to not get scored on, ipso facto, stay on as long as I could. No one knew me yet. They only knew where I was before. I wanted to win really bad constantly and that’s how everyone should feel.

        The defending was pretty relaxed and I did not appreciate that. In a setting where it wasn’t an official practice, coach wasn’t there, players can sometimes feel like they can take plays off, especially when defending. I didn’t see it that way. It was time to work. I started to get irritated after getting hung out to dry for the second or third time. The next goal was conceded because the last man back received a pass and dummied it without even a look. An opposing player one timed it into the side netting. I did not have a chance. I yelled that we needed to keep the ball and it wasn’t quiet. I probably caught a few people off guard. As I was walking off, because I got scored on, so the GKs switched, an underclassman told me that I needed to watch myself and said something along the lines of “we don’t need that/do that here.”

       There should never be an issue with demanding a higher standard from those around you. And there is a right and a wrong way to do it. The most important thing about stuff like this is that it doesn’t leave the field. Just because teammates argue on the field, doesn’t mean there’s anything personal involved. It comes from a desire to win really badly and everyone at some point will need called out.

       Moving into the season, it is important to note that I was on the bench for the first 3 games of the season. Naturally, I disagreed with the decision, but it wasn’t my decision to make. I’d felt like I was playing the best soccer I ever had. On the first day of preseason, we played small-sided games for 30-45 minutes and I did not concede a goal. I played well in both preseason scrimmages and still, I was on the bench. This is one of the many tough things about being a goalkeeper is that there are no guarantees. And due to the fact one GK gets the majority of the time, transferring can go in the direction of playing every game or not playing at all.

        I was certain I hadn’t left a shadow of a doubt that I should be on the field. But what could I do? So, I sat and waited. Late in the second half in our 3rd game of the season against Wilmington University, the call came. I went in after 85 minutes on the bench and played to a 0-0 draw at the end of 110 minutes. From there, I played until the end. It’s funny thinking about it now because the game I was looking forward to most was at the dead end of the season in late October. It was against Seton Hill in Greensburg. This was the closest game to home for me on the schedule (or so I thought at the time).

       The regular season went really well for us. We ended the regular season with a record of 14-2-5. Thinking back on it, things just seemed to go in our favor a lot and that was a nice change to be honest. One of those losses in particular, to Bloomsburg, still eats at me a little. Without getting into detail, it wasn’t my best performance, but it was a great catalyst for me going into the rest of the season. I changed my entire pregame routine after that game.

       At the end of the season, all eyes were on the conference tournament trophy. West Chester had missed out on it in the years before. This year would be the one. We came out of the regular season as the number 1 seed. There wasn’t a trophy for winning the regular season, but it did allow us to host the conference tournament and get a bye in the first round. We played East Stroudsburg in the semi-final, a team we had beat 1-0 in the first conference game of the season. We mostly cruised to another 1-0 victory with a big thanks to a goal line clearance with a minute left (shouts to Sami). This win put us into the final against Millersville, another team we had beat in the regular season 2-1. What an intense game this was, played in front a huge crowd too. We went up 1-0 in the first half I believe. Following that, Millersville had a lot of the ball. They could really work the ball up the field. We had a tough time finding possession. The tying goal came later in the second half after a chance that bounced around the 18. I knew it wasn’t going to be hard to hang on to a 1-0 lead with minimal possession against that team. Throughout the remainder of the game, we had our chances, one of them hitting the crossbar with less than 10 seconds left in the final extra time period. What a moment that would have been.

       Penalties followed. This was my first actual, meaningful penalty shootout. I wasn’t particularly nervous going into it, I was just going to do whatever I could. For being shorter, I always felt like I was pretty good at penalties. I had a few different strategies. More often than not, I would decide which side I was going to as soon as the penalty was called and go all out to cover that side of the goal. None of my strategies helped that day and Millersville buried 4 straight. 2 of them just below the crossbar in opposite corners. Their keeper saved 2 of ours. It just didn’t go our way. What should’ve been a massive celebration on our home field in front of our fans felt like the end of our season as we came up short.

       The season wasn’t over though. We had still qualified for the National Tournament and we were to host Notre Dame of Ohio in the first round a week later. The morale during that week in between was low. I think a lot of the guys felt like the season ended with the loss in the conference final. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what was coming in the following month.

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