Final Four (Part 5)

     The win against Cal Poly gave me at least two more days at home. The National Championship was to be played on Saturday at 12pm. Lucky for everyone who told me we needed to win, so that they could come watch us play. Thursday night, a group of us went to Condado Tacos on Liberty Ave. right across from our hotel. My recommendation and a good one at that. The next day we trained again at Highmark then went to Bravo in the waterfront for a team dinner (another one of my recommendations). Obviously, Bravo isn’t a Pittsburgh icon, but being the one who knew the area the best, I had to take logistics into account, 30+ people, a bus, etc.

     The team parents were planning a tailgate for before the championship game that was to be held in the parking lot at the stadium. I really don’t remember any specific feelings going into this game. The only thing I remember vividly is stepping off the bus at Highmark. I’d had my headphones in since we left the hotel. I stepped into the cold with a song by We Came as Romans cranked up to the loudest possible volume. Earlier in the season, I had sworn off of the heavy music and getting as amped up as possible because it made me too tense. On this day, I felt that it was early enough before game time that I could get away with.

     I have been consistently getting ripped for years for listening to “screamo” as everyone loves to put it. For years, heavy music dominated my pregame playlist. I wouldn’t say I listen to it as often as I used to, but there’s still a time and a place for it. The majority of songs like that are actually incredibly motivating, but you’d have to hear it for yourself.

     As I stepped off the bus, I could see the large group of West Chester fans decked out in their purple and gold and the big Chipotle tent that my uncle brought. Everyone waved and cheered as we made our way into the building. For this game, we were now in the Riverhounds (home) locker room, which felt a little too appropriate for me. Custom name plate magnets had been stuck to the tops of the lockers and a box of shirts in mostly XXL size that read “Division II National Finalist” was in the middle of the room. I decided not to take one. I wanted the National Champion shirt.

     The crowd size increased. A good amount of the new faces were the people who told me we needed to win so that they could make the final. The entire West Chester Field Hockey team was there. They had also just played in the National Championship across the river at Duquesne University. Almost the entire West Chester Women’s Soccer team made the trip across the state too.

     To start the game, I was in the goal with the scoreboard and the Monongahela River to my left. This also put me on the side with the other West Chester teams in the stands to my right. The tension of the first ten minutes was to be expected. We were playing Barry University from south Florida. There were some visible nerves on both sides, but Barry still had the majority of the ball.

     For me, I spent the first 20 minutes fielding balls sent through the back line and being an option at the back for our center/outside backs, but I was never really tested with anything difficult. At around 22 minutes in, we got a free kick deep into our half close to the stands. I went over to take it in front of all of our fans. Just after I took the kick, my roommate Colin yelled, “hey Will, I got a new candle for our apartment.” On top of the laughter from the crowd, I shot back a pointed finger as I jogged back towards the middle of the field, never taking my eyes off of the ball.

     With 21 minutes left in the first half, we scored. 1-0. On a corner from the right side, Jason Pixley placed a perfect header into the far side of Barry’s goal. There is a video out there somewhere of the view of the goal from behind the goal I was in. I saw the ball go in and instantly looked to my right at all of the West Chester fans. In this moment, there was obviously a very concrete chance that we would be National Champions if we could do what we had done all year and just hang on. I was so confident at this point that we would be able to do it, because we had so many times before. In spite of all of this, I definitely would’ve preferred scoring just a little bit later. There was just so much time left.

     Like in the semi-final, Barry had a set piece with under 20 seconds left in the first half. It ended up being a bad service and went out for a goal kick as time ran out. With 45 minutes to go, we went into the locker room up 1-0. The locker room has hectic. Everyone felt like they had the right thing to say, to do, how we were going to win this game. I personally would have loved for everyone to just sit down and shut up. Half time was the much-needed time to breath, attempt to get a warm again and prepare for what was next.

     Walking out for the second half, I was talking with our head coach, Coach Benn, about planning to manage the game as we got towards the end. This had been my bread and butter all season, taking as much time as possible to kill the game. It was our kickoff to start the half and away we went.

     This is where it gets tough. Throughout writing this five-part blog, I watched every game, having watched the other games multiple times since they happened. I have only watched the National Championship once. Barry’s momentum was building throughout the half as we steadily began to move towards parking the bus. Personally, I would much rather continue to take some chances to attack in these situations rather than rely on defending. It just puts so much pressure on not only the goalkeeper but the entire back six players.

     Thinking back on it, I should’ve faked an injury or taken a yellow card. I should’ve done something in an attempt to kill the momentum of the game because as the minutes ticked down during the second half, you could just feel that something bad was going to happen. In a five minute span, Barry had three corners and a free kick and we were struggling to hold up the ball in the other half. At this point, I was swinging through every goal kick as hard as I could in an attempt to get the ball as far down the field as possible.

     Barry definitely had the momentum, but we still had a chance or two with one being an empty net scramble, but we just couldn’t manage to finish. At 12 and a half minutes left, Barry won a corner. The ball was served in and I went. A gap opened nicely for me to catch it, but at the last second anticipating contact, I decided to hit it away rather than catch. I should’ve caught it 100%. The ball went straight to a Barry player. Already being way out of the net, I had no choice but to close it. I ran out and made myself big. He took a shot that went by me and was cleared by one of our defenders, but we still weren’t safe. As I dropped back into the goal, the ball was cycled out to the opposite side of which it was originally served in from. The ball was served in the air and skipped off the head of a Barry player standing around the corner of the 6-yard box on the near side. The ball looped up and over me and into the back of the net. 1-1. It was a really well-placed ball that probably wasn’t intentional. Had I been deeper, closer to the goal line, maybe I would have had a better chance at getting a hand on the ball. We were stunned.

     Conceding the tying goal didn’t feel like defeat at the time. It was worrying for sure, but we had already won a semi-final in extra time and we could definitely do it again. I felt that there was some naivety on our part though. Barry wasn’t going to stop coming at us. Even when we were up 1-0. This was it. No team is going to just give up in a National Championship game.

     At seven minutes left, Barry won a free kick just outside of our 18 yard box. It was a bad foul and the last thing we needed this late in the game. I had four guys in the wall. I was expecting a right footed strike which, had he decided to go over the wall, would bend away from me. Because of this, I decided to set myself a little more central than I usually would almost inviting the shooter to go around the wall. In hindsight, I should have made him try to beat me over the wall. The whistle blew and I saw the ball come out from behind the wall on the left. I dove to full extension and it was just beyond my hands as it went in, just inside the far post. 2-1.

     This was the moment where the defeat started to settle in.  Everyone was rattled and it was visible. I always felt that there was more I could’ve done on both goals. Surely this is how everyone feels, and no one will ever get to know how things could’ve been different. I could really let it eat at me if I wanted to.

     All Barry had to do now was manage the game. Every chance they got, they dribbled to the corner in an attempt to kill the game. If it was me, I’d do the same thing. We could not seem to stop fouling them as we made our last few attempts at their goal. Time dwindled. 1-minute left. We won a free kick about 40 yards out from goal with under 30 seconds to go. From there we won a corner, I ran up the field into Barry’s 18. They cleared the service easily. Game over.

     I walked to the far end of the field. I stood there and just looked around. I looked up at friends and family, across the river at downtown Pittsburgh. Lots of my teammates were on the ground, tears flowing. I’ll never cry in situations like those. I feel like that the tears should be reserved for the big moments on the other side of the spectrum, like the one all of the Barry players got to have 50 yards away from me. Barry’s coach caught up to me at the half and told me something along of the lines of “keep your head up, from what I’ve heard from everyone around here is you’re the reason these guys were able to do all that they did this season.”

     Next came the trophy presentation. Both teams huddled next to a table that held the National Champion and Runner-Up trophies. There was a lot of grumbling from our side. I get it. Who wants to watch the team you just lost to raise the National Championship trophy? But that’s what we signed up for. You don’t get to play on the big stage and then skip the bad parts when things don’t go your way. You win and lose like a man. I stood and clapped for the Barry players.

     When Barry lifted the trophy, streamers shot into the air. As they went up, the wind blew, and several streamers hit me right in the face. What more can you do then laugh at that point? We left the field. I got to see family and friends. I was the coldest I have ever been in my life. Adrenaline had kept me warm up until the game ended and standing for that trophy ceremony reminded my body how wet and cold I was.

     I got back on the bus and checked my phone. It was slow and glitching because it was also ice cold. I had tons of notifications from people saying good luck or that they saw the final result or that they would be watching the live stream. My brother had texted me and asked, “what’s next? Going pro, CrossFit regionals, college coaching?” It was funny because I was thinking the same thing the second I got on the bus. What was I going to do now? My college soccer career was officially over.

     I never thought I would get to play in a National Championship. Again, it’s not something you say out loud. But you have to know the capabilities of your environment. One thing I never thought about, was the idea of losing in a National Championship. I don’t know if anyone thinks about that until they are faced with the reality of it. To make it all the way to the end and come up short with 12 minutes left. I guess I always thought that if I did end up making it to that last game, that whatever team I was playing for would just win it.

     Regardless of the outcome, the story alone is enough for me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to be a National Champion really really really bad. After four years of never playing at Pitt, I had no idea if I’d ever get to feel what it was like to even be a starter on a collegiate team. Choosing West Chester in December of 2017 was one of the best choices I ever made.

     I think losing that game has kept me hungry. Even if I we had won it, I don’t think it would’ve made me any less driven than I still am today. I am always striving for those big moments. They don’t happen often, but they are out there in all aspects of life. Competition has always been and will always be a big part of my life. So now the question was and continues to be, how am I going to find myself in one of these big moments again?

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