Final Four (Part 4)

     Following the Elite 8 and picking up our 15th win of the season, West Chester Men’s Soccer was heading back to Pennsylvania with a trip to the Final Four secured. The National Semi-Final was scheduled for November 29th, just a little under two weeks away. I always wondered what happened in these situations when teams made it this far in the tournament because Thanksgiving always fell in the middle somehow. Would we be able to return home for break, or would we have to stay and train? At this point, I hadn’t been home in 3 and a half months, not counting our short trip to Seton Hill in Greensburg at the end of October. I wanted to go home for a bit, but I also knew how important it was to prepare for what was coming.

     We beat Adelphi University on November 17th, which was also my 23rd birthday. The plan was for everyone to go home and be with family for Thanksgiving and then be back in West Chester the weekend after. I went back to Pittsburgh on a Tuesday. I remember driving through Oakland (Pitt) one day and saw there were signs hung up on the streetlights advertising the Division II National Championships Festival. Every 4 years, Division II has a ‘festival’ where several championships take place in one city. This year, it was in Pittsburgh. So, while we were heading there for the men’s soccer National Championship, championships for women’s soccer, field hockey, volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country would also be taking place simultaneously throughout Pittsburgh. I took a picture of one of the signs and sent it in the team GroupMe.

     There was only so much training I felt like we could do at this point in the season. The most important thing was for everyone to get back to feeling 100% and scout our next opponent, Cal Poly Pomona. I felt pretty good around this time except for a massive bruise on my right quad from the Adelphi game and the nagging mental exhaustion. By mental exhaustion, I mean kind of a mix of the anxiety/ocd symptoms I used to deal with more frequently at this point in my life. When I got really tired, generally and physically, that’s when things would spiral a little. Now I know how to take care of it, but then I didn’t. So following the Charleston game, I was in a low-hum state of anxiety for a good while after that.

     Getting back to soccer, the fact that I was getting ready to travel back to Pittsburgh to play in the Final Four at Highmark Stadium didn’t seem real to me. The summer prior to my transfer to West Chester I was playing for a men’s league team based out of Plum. I was talking with a few of my teammates who played in the PSAC and it was then that I found out that the Division II Final Four was to be played in Pittsburgh. Now again, I would’ve never said, “that will never happen,” but I was aware of the likelihood of it. I did not go to West Chester thinking that we would end up playing in the Final Four. I expected a conference title and a national tournament berth, but not being amongst the four best teams in Division II.

     We started our trip to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, November 27th. We were scheduled to play in the semi-final on Thursday, November 29th. Depending on how we did, we could end up staying in Pittsburgh until Sunday, December 2nd. I remember the long drive across the state on the Pennsylvania turnpike, driving passed the Bedford exit where I would total my Jeep a little over a month later (a story for another time). It’s worth mentioning that out of all of the players on the West Chester roster, I lived the furthest away. We only had 2 players that were from outside of Pennsylvania (Maryland and New Jersey) and still, they lived closer to West Chester than I did. Everyone else was from central and eastern Pennsylvania.

     It was cold and gray when we arrived in Pittsburgh, the standard for late November. We were staying in the Wyndham hotel downtown by the convention center. Upon arrival, we were given our “gifts” for making it to the Final Four. This included a bookbag with NCAA Division II Festival embroidered on the back, a mini ball, a shirt and other items. We met in the player’s lounge. It was basically a giant game room. There were arcade games, ping pong and foosball tables and just about every video game console that was available at the time. There were activities held there each night for the players in that hotel (there were 3 other hotels around the city housing teams there for the festival) like karaoke, etc. The main reason for this meeting was to get our room keys and credentials that were to be worn at all times proving that we were who we were.

     On the first night of the festival, the opening ceremony was held at Top Golf outside Pittsburgh in Bridgeville. Top Golf was closed that night to the public to host over 900 athletes there to compete for the National Championship in their respective sport. Out of these 900 athletes, I still think I was the only one from Pittsburgh.

     The next day, Wednesday, each of the 8 soccer teams (4 men’s and 4 women’s) had a block of time reserved at Highmark stadium to get a training session in. That morning, it also snowed about 3-4 inches. When I started part 1 of these blog posts, I talked about how many different reasons I’ve been to Highmark Stadium for. Showing up in a West Chester jersey was the weirdest one.

     I got to dive around in the snow a little bit and make a few saves in what was more so a formality and getting used to the surface. There were Highmark Stadium staff all around that I had been around and maybe met briefly, but they would never recognize me being there playing for West Chester in the Division II Final Four. 

     Thursday was gameday. Each morning, there was breakfast in one of the giant conference rooms in the hotel. Leading up to time to leave for the field, I mostly remember feeling tired. I learned this year that this was pretty normal for me and I wouldn’t feel awake until sometime into the warm-up. We boarded the bus outside the Wyndham and started the 10-minute ride from downtown Pittsburgh to Highmark Stadium on the south shore of the Monoghahela River.

     The snow had been cleared off the field, but it was still overcast and pretty cold. I don’t remember feeling a lot of pressure. It was just another game, bonus-round soccer. Naturally, I told everyone I knew that I was going to be playing in Pittsburgh in the National Semi-Final. Unfortunately, the game was scheduled for 2PM on a Thursday, so most people’s response was, “I can’t make it, but you better win so I can be at the Final.” Still, a lot of people came. There was a large portion of the crowd that was there for me. Prior to kickoff, both teams walked out to the half for introductions and faced the Mt. Washington side of the stadium where the stands were. At this point, my family started to hold up big white signs to eventually spell out Y-A-L-L-I-W, (WILLAY, but they had the signs backwards).

     Kickoff. For the first half, I was in the goal on the entrance side of the stadium with the Fort Pitt Bridge over my shoulder. And I will tell you, they came AT us for the first 45 minutes. That’s not to say we didn’t have our chances. They just came from set pieces and counterattacks, as everyone should have learned to expect from us at this point. That being said, again, we didn’t have a lot of the ball. In the 5th minute, I made one of the best saves I had all season. I rarely think about it, but when it comes down to the nature of the save and the circumstances, it’s pretty high on the list. Cal Poly played a cut back to a near post runner who managed to get a shot off from about 7 yards away. My set position was taller, and I managed to get the end of my foot to the ball send it up and over the crossbar. In all honesty, in the moment, I thought I kicked the ball straight into the top corner.

     At this point in the season, it was pretty well known that West Chester had an undersized keeper. Cal Poly aimed to exploit that by crowding me as much as they could during corners. Looking back at the film, you can’t even see me. I've heard the comments about being short my whole life. When I went back to rewatch this game, it was all the commentators could talk about too. I get it, but if it was really such an issue, do you think I would've made it this far? 

     I do remember thinking at one point that it was going to be difficult to make it out of this game because Cal Poly was so good. They had so much pace up front. But the West Chester defending was class as it had been all season. The half ended scoreless and I was able to breath for 15 minutes in the away locker room of the stadium.

     At the time, the Highmark Stadium turf had never been replaced. And being the highly sought venue that it is, the turf was subject to some overuse. As a result, it was very matted down. This didn’t allow the ball to roll very well so it spent a lot of time in the air and bouncing around. The second half was filled with more extra touches and attempts to get the ball under control just like the first half. 

     At around five minutes into the 2nd half came one of my favorite moments from the season. One of our outside backs played a questionable pass back to me. It was lifted into the air and bounced just before it got to me. It was wet and the turf was already slippery, so the potential for a mistake here was higher than usual. The Cal Poly Pomona strikers were also very fast and smart. They knew I was right footed, so the striker pressed me closing off my right side of the field, forcing me to take a touch and put the ball on my left foot. Earlier in the season, there was some question over whether or not I could use my left, which was ridiculous, of course I could, I just never really had to.

     The ball bounced in and I took a clean touch with my right foot and with my second touch sent the ball to midfield with my left foot. The reason this is one of my favorite moments is because of how textbook it looked in such a high stakes moment. It may seem trivial, but any deviation from how the play actually went and there’s a pretty good chance it leads to a goal conceded.

     Ten minutes in came the first goal of the game. Cal Poly’s striker was left unmarked around eight yards from goal. The ball was crossed in and he did a great job at heading it towards the back half of the goal. I had dropped back to cover the near half, which is all you can hope for with so little time to react. I wasn't too far away from it after I dove, but it was well placed. 1-0 Cal Poly Pomona.

     In this moment, it could have been really easy for us to say, “it was a good run, we made it this far, even when we weren’t supposed to.” I was even thinking it, I hadn’t rolled over yet, but I did think maybe this was as far as we get to go. Then comes that West Chester resilience I mentioned before.

     Five minutes later, off a failed clearance by Cal Poly, we got our tying goal. I’ve been trying not to use names throughout these posts, but this goal by freshman Eric Greer absolutely deserves it. A bouncing ball struck with his weak foot into the top left corner. More often than not in these moments, the ball ends up being launched out of the stadium. Greer placed it into the corner with such an impressive amount of finesse from a freshman. 1-1.

     For the rest of regulation, I just did my job. Our defense managed everything really well. Both teams had a few chances. Usually in this situation I’m thinking we’ll handle things in extra time. When full time came, the pressure level increased slightly as it got closer and closer to the beginning of extra time. The thing is, no one wants to concede the type of “buzzer beater, golden goal” type goal that the NCAA has created. In the real world, extra time is played out completely. There is no golden goal. The NCAA version of soccer is a bit sensationalized with the clock that ticks down to a buzzer, when normally the referee is in complete control of the clock. This allows for these big celebratory moments that could happen during every game throughout the season. Its exhausting.

     I wasn’t nervous. I was just going to continue doing my job. At a little over six minutes left, Cal Poly got their first (and last) corner of extra time. Right before this stretch of play, I noticed two of my former teammates from Pitt were standing behind the goal. I flashed them a look that said something like, “isn’t this some shit?” The corner kick is served in, at this point, they are crowding me as much as they can. So much, that you can only see my hands extended above my head. The ball is served in towards the back post, I almost go, then drop back to the line. It is headed straight up into the air and I go and collect it, easily. Breathe. This late in the game, in extra time, in a National Semi-Final, there’s no time for bullshit, we’re going long. I gave the guys time to get up the field and line up a punt that hooks left into the path of our left mid. 100% not my intention, but it worked. He dribbles to the corner, drops the ball back to our center mid who takes a prep touch and delivers an absolute dime to our striker at the near post. Goal. Game over. West Chester to the National Championship.

     Now, I know I said no one wants to concede a buzzer beater, golden goal, but there is not a single person who has a problem with winning by one. The second I saw the ball hit the back of the net, I took off. I don’t even remember getting down the field, but I almost certainly covered 100 yards in no more than eight seconds. What a feeling.

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