Final Four (Part 3)

     When I decided to write about this whole experience, I did not intend for it to be made up of multiple parts. But once I started, I realized that there was a lot more to write about than I originally thought. And still, I’ve left a lot out. Looking back to what was technically the second round (first round for us) of the national tournament against Notre Dame College, I remember the general vibe was “great we get an extra game”. As I mentioned before, the conference championship was our big goal that season and after coming up short, it almost felt like our season ended there. But it didn’t.

     I actually don’t remember much about this game except for some general details and one or two moments in particular. It was a Saturday in November. A lot like the conference final, really sunny, no clouds. It was a crisp fall day in West Chester on Rockwell Field. There were spectators scattered on the hill behind one of the goals.

     Later in the second half, we were ahead 2-1 when the ref blew for a penalty for Notre Dame. After a while I developed the same kind of pattern when dealing with penalty kicks. As soon as the whistle was blown, I walked off the field to where my water bottle was and stood looking away from the field. In this moment, I decided to dive to my right. I felt it was best to make a decision early and stick with it, rather than overthink it. I took as much time as I could, an attempt to ice the penalty taker, even waiting for the ref to ask me to step back into the goal. When the whistle blew, I waited until the penalty taker got to the step right before he planted to shoot, and I quickly took a step left then went all out to my right side. I had the whole side covered and the ball went wide of the post and hit the fence behind the goal.

     I like to think that he initially planned to shoot to my left, saw that I was going that way and switched mid-run-up to the other side, which caused the miss. I’ll never know. But I’ll take it. From there we secured the 2-1 win to move on to the next round and compete for the Atlantic Regional Championship.

     The regionals were set up so that the top seed in the East and Atlantic alternated hosting the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 every year in one weekend. So that meant this year, we were playing against the University of Charleston at LIU Post. LIU Post was to host Adelphi University on their home field in the East Regional Championship. The winners of each game would play each other in the Elite 8 later in the same weekend.

     If you know anything about college soccer, you know, or at least, know of the University of Charleston. They have been a consistent contender in Division II for the past several years. At the time, they had 4 Final Four appearances since 2014 and were the defending national champions. I knew going to West Chester that their season had ended with a loss to Charleston in 2016 and 2017. This match-up would be the 3rd straight between West Chester and Charleston in the National Tournament.

     LIU Post had a grass field. And at this point in the season, mid-November, it wasn’t in the best shape. The goal mouths were mostly hard wet dirt sprinkled with some grass. The rest of the field looked awesome, but underneath the grass was firm mud. This made it tough to keep the ball rolling on the grass, which in turn, made keeping possession difficult. This would be a big factor for us.

     This Regional Championship game is a strong contender for one of the busiest games I’ve ever played. It was overcast, around 35 degrees, although I don’t ever remember being cold. Going into the game, I can imagine everyone had similar thoughts. I knew this was going to be a difficult game. I knew the results of the past 2 outings. It was going to be a big challenge to pull out a win, but no one would have ever dared to say that out loud. This was one of my absolute favorite characteristics of this West Chester team. No matter who we played against, there was never a time where we didn’t think we could win. Everyone always approached big games with a kind of calm indifference, not in the sense that we didn’t care about winning or losing, but that we didn’t care about who we were playing against. We would find a way to win. We never rolled over. Throughout the season, we had several great examples of what it meant to be resilient and to make sure we played hard for 90 minutes.

     Charleston is a possession-based team. We were not. That’s not to say we couldn’t keep the ball and connect passes, we just didn’t. During the first 10 minutes of the game, Charleston had to have at least 90% of the ball. But that didn’t mean they were flying at the goal either, I didn’t have to deal with much in the beginning of the game at all. I remember thinking in the beginning how they kept trying to do the same thing. They would possess until they got within 25 yards from our goal, then look to find a gap in our backline and play someone through. It never worked once, but still they never deviated from that plan until late in the game.

     We scored 12 minutes in on a rebound from a set piece. Scoring on a set piece was basically the West Chester special. Going up 1-0 early was probably more a of shock to Charleston than it was to us. At least, that’s how I felt. This was only the 4th goal they had conceded all season. Charleston, with 95% possession of the ball, had 1 shot during the entire first half and it wasn’t even on goal.

     What I remember about half time was the walk to the bus. The locker room was too far away, so we stood on the bus for 10 minutes in an attempt to get warm. I don’t even remember what I thought about it, but I knew the second half was going to be nothing short of a battle to maintain our 1-0 lead. One of my biggest concerns throughout the first half and into the second half was just to not slip and fall when taking goal kicks. I’m pretty sure I was the only one on our team with mixed studs on (4 metal and 4 regular). Every chance I had; I was hitting the bottom of my cleats off the posts to get the mud off.

     Charleston’s game plan became a lot more direct as we got closer to full time. They were no longer looking for their perfect ball through the backline. Shots were taken from as far out as 25 yards, a major difference from the first half. It was so intense and just kept building. I feel like I didn’t fully exhale until the ball went out for a West Chester goal kick with 10 seconds left in the game. Because in that moment, we knew for sure that we’d pulled it off. Right after the final whistle, we lifted the Atlantic Regional trophy, a trophy that no longer exists because of changes to the format of the Division II National Tournament.

     There is a video out of there of us lifting the trophy, everyone’s jumping and celebrating. I was on the outside of the group and I got maybe 2 jumps in and walked away, having had enough. First of all, I had never been so mentally exhausted. What I really needed was to go and be alone for a little bit and take in what had just happened. And second, we weren’t done yet. We eliminated the defending national champions, and it probably meant way more to the guys that had been there for the last 2 losses to Charleston in the previous years than it did to me. But this meant that we had a real chance at getting to the final four.

     The Elite 8 game was scheduled two days following the Atlantic Regional game against Charleston. Due to the grass field taking a beating from two back-to-back games in wet conditions, the game was moved to Hofstra University’s turf field. We were to play Adelphi University. Winning this game would send us to the Final Four in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

     I’ve mentioned before in other posts about how I’d never experienced such physical manifestations of anxiety before this game against Adelphi. The mental exhaustion from the Charleston game definitely carried over and it actually took me a quite a while to get over it. Going into the Adelphi game, my heart was pounding, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. But the second I crossed the line to warm up, it all disappeared, and it remained that way for the next 90 or so minutes.

     Adelphi was not nearly as good as Charleston. That’s not to say they didn’t deserve to be this far along in the tournament, but still they just weren’t as good. Getting past Charleston, when maybe we weren’t supposed to, made anything and everything feel possible.

     The first half was pretty uneventful. I took a few goal kicks and both teams had some opportunities, but it remained scoreless at halftime. I still felt incredibly focused. I was just taking it minute by minute. About 90 seconds into the second half, one of the wingers for Adelphi crossed a floating ball into the box. I came out and caught it well above head height of everyone around me. Around this time, I was the most confident dealing with crosses that I ever had been. Following the catch, I took my time and sent a side volley/punt to our central midfielder who then played our striker through the Adelphi backline to give us our first goal of the day and put us up 1-0.

     Now time to manage the game. Even with 42 minutes left, I was going to eat up as much time as possible whenever I could. I took as long as possible to set up my goal kicks. Any ball that rolled into the box, I was sure to dribble as far away from the nearest opposing player and then just wait until they made me pick it up. We had been here before and we knew what we had to do.

     With 17 minutes left, an enormous weight was lifted. I still don’t really know what happened. I couldn’t see from the other side of the field and the film doesn’t give a clear picture either. Our corner kick was whipped in towards the near post, the ball takes a bounce and the Adelphi players just stop. The ball then makes its way in front of the goal to be tapped in and the ref blows the whistle for a goal. I won’t argue it. 2-0. The remaining 17 minutes felt like business as usual. Manage the game and get the ball to the corner when we could.

     The final whistle blew, and we were headed to the Final Four. I was standing at midfield and a song came on over the stadium speakers with the lyrics “I just want to make my hometown proud.” Pretty standard stuff, but from my perspective it couldn’t help but feel a little weird. What started out as “how cool would that be” became a reality as West Chester Men’s Soccer was headed to the Final Four in Pittsburgh, PA to play along the Monongahela River on the turf at Highmark Stadium.

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