Meditations From the Final Four!
A blog of the girls' soccer postseason run
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
“If you do one of those articles, could you put in there that these are the BEST team moms ever!” One of the girls’ soccer coaches – Julie Fennell – said these words as 18 players, one manager, two coaches, a journalist and the above-mentioned moms scurry aboard the Samson Stagecoach Wednesday afternoon.
The moms – Lisa Anderson and Paige Glover – have heard none of it. Instead they are scurrying around at 50 miles per hour with gusts up to 125 – filling coolers with ice, loading snacks, carrying signs, scissors, pasteboard, streamers and such - each holding their cell phones as if waiting further instructions.
The situation is this: The Samson is taking the troops to Macon for the Final Four in Class A State soccer to face First Presbyterian Day School – the defending state champs. Our beloved girls have already topped Paideia in overtime 4-3 before traveling to Savannah last Saturday and edging Calvary Day 2-1 in another squeaker. At least two spirit buses are soon to follow us as we head south on I-75, further south on I-475 and due west onto Zebulon Drive. A part of me is confused – I mean – since the world is round how exactly can you have directions such as south or due west, or even north or east, but perhaps that’s a question you should never ask a geography teacher. I found this out in fifth grade.
Still, the pecking order of loading buses hasn’t changed – the players file as far to the back as possible, leaving the adults up front. The ride down is relaxed, smooth, the only weird thing being that this bus – great and all and no complaints – smelled an awful lot like toilet bowl sanitizer. Still, we rolled – the adults tackling such topics as Alzheimer’s disease, I-Phones and Scouting Reports while the girls enjoyed each other’s company.
We reach Macon before 3:30 p.m.
The Pre-Game: Perhaps there’s nothing more drawn out in God’s Green Earth than the couple hours before a team takes their nerves, skills and anticipations out on the field to see who will reach a state final. Today is no exception. Snapshots flicker in and out: Players walking two-by-two to the locker room; freshmen carrying coolers; coaches collecting the players, reminding them that “It’s early but get focused! Get out of the sun; it’s hot out here”; Julia Wright seeking a trainer for her ankle; our two seniors – Taylor Anderson and Shannon O’Hanlon taking in what they hope won’t be their last high school game ever. (Actually, it won’t be regardless. They’ve been chosen to play in the Class A-AAA All-Star game at Marist on the 20th. But I digress).
Eventually, trainers are found, ankles are taped, shin guards are put in their proper places and it is time for the Pep Talk. This journalist is no stranger to the HIES pep talk. Football coach Ryan Livezey has only raised his voice once in all his years here. Baseball leader Dylan Deal can laugh and tease with his troops, but once his arms fold across his chest and his face turns red, lips are sealed, knees are taken, syllables are heard. Girls’ tennis coach Cindy Harder coaxes – she’s a PE coach who guides in a soft voice. It is rumored that the boys’ tennis coach isn’t very good at this sort of thing. (I did make a pep talk once; the kids just forgot to listen).
Anyway, 16 healthy players, two injured and one manager take a seat while Coach Fennell and Coach Stephani Kohl take the floor. “Do you remember back in February why we chose the phrase “Rock Solid!” Fennell asks. Players look around, wonder if they should raise their hands, then choose to remain silent. “Sediments over time and with pressure form rocks,” she continues. “The rock isn’t just hard on the outside either, they are solid all the way through. That is what you all have become. That is what and who you are.” Heads bob, eyes are locked in, the team is focusing. “Other teams are not as close as we are; we take care of each other. We’ve said all along that the team with the best mental edge will be the most dangerous come postseason. That team is us.”
Kohl reaches into her bag of tricks, passes out something she made or found or saw somewhere. That’s the beauty of women coaches – guys can use harsh and loud words – women all-ways (one word and two) can find things to pass out – backup or a pie chart if you will. Today’s backup is simply three words: I Dare You.
“I dare you to be great today,” Fennell continues. “Welcome your nerves. Good things are about to happen.”
There is more, but the expertise of the words combined with the visual works. Eighteen players and one manager who have already proven they can and will take care of each other bond further in one tight, enclosed dressing room in Macon.
Still, it’s an hour before game time.
The girls chill. Waiting. Sounds are coming from the adjacent dressing room. The enemy. So close. The field right outside and the opposition right next door. Music already blaring over the PA system. Legs already taped. Speeches filed and remembered. A championship game in the balance. Let’s do this thing.
The girls take the field for dynamic stretching at 4:20; at 4:35 they are right back in the dressing room. “They’re not coming out; we’re not coming out yet either,” Fennell offers as she herds her troops back inside. Eventually, both teams take the field; balls kicking, loud whooping, coaches instructing, music still playing. On the bench sit our two wounded – Katie Jacobs and Emma van Beuningen.
Jacobs had reconstructive surgery on the ligaments of her kneecap while van Beuningen has a recurring knee problem. Is this tough for them? “Yeah, I’m frustrated,” van Beuningen offers. “I’m frustrated but I’m used to it. I was mad when I couldn’t play against Paideia. Now I just make myself not think about it.” Katie shakes her head in agreement; adjusts her crutches. Bless their very hearts.
The Game: Adrenaline is everywhere. Our bench is a class in one-word instructions – delivered by Kohl, Fennell and Leary Barnes. “Mark!” “Organize!” “Tighter!” “Drop!” “Leave!”
The game begins like a Ping-Pong match – balls are delivered to each side of the field before being quickly punched back the other way. Attacks, counterattacks, not much to report until the 23rd minute when Julia Bird fires a through-ball toward the right wing to our “Little Locomotive” – Grant Wilmer. Wilmer dribbles twice, then cranks a right-footer from 18 yards out. The ball sails far post, past a diving keeper and the Bears are up 1-0. “Her pass was right on,” Wilmer would say later. “In warm-ups I usually miss that shot but in the games, sometimes I can make it.” An understatement – she drilled it and texts are immediately delivered home to the Atlanta faithful. “Bears lead 1-0!” Fans are pressing “like” for all they are worth; a city is waiting for more.
Unfortunately, “more” comes only four minutes later – in the 27th minute – when a First Presbyterian shot caroms around in front of our goal, only to be finished off by a Viking forward. It’s 1-1. A moan comes up from our bench. More texts, more responses, life goes on!
The Vikings, spurred by the adrenaline, attack our tiring Bears. With 7:16 left in the half, they hit the crossbar. There’s a near miss at the 5:40 mark and with 1:30 to go, our keeper Sarah Belisle makes a great save.
Our defense, bending though it is, refuses to break. Bailey McBride and O’Hanlon are simply everywhere. Madeleine Gibson is resilient – shifting, countering, stopping. Jordan McBride, Keller Donnell, Rachel Morton and the subbing Madison Collins are holding down the fort. For every Viking action there is a Golden Bear reaction.
The half ends at 1-1. Atlanta awaits more news and the second half.
With 31 plus left, Bailey McBride saves a goal with a sliding tackle. Then, in the 62nd minute and with 28:46 remaining, First Presbyterian makes a rare mistake. Misplaying a pass in front of their own net, the ball bounces over their keeper’s head into the goal. Taylor Anderson is our closest offensive player – she is awarded the goal according to the journalist’s very unofficial stats. “I didn’t score that goal,” she would later say with that All American giggle of hers. So what, you deserve it.
The news is sent back home. Can we hold on for 28 more minutes?
For the most part, we do but with 11:05 their striker, well, strikes. Our scouting report clearly read, “She can rip a shot quickly with the slightest of space.” Unfortunately, she gets that space. From about 25 yards out, she rips a right-footer far and wide over Belisle’s outstretched blessed hands. The game is tied. Our beloved city moans.
Ping-Pong begins again until the God’s step in with 6:04 to play. Lightning, it seems, has invaded this fine city. “Players please clear the field. Lightning is in a 3-to-6 mile radius. GHSA rules state we must wait 30 more minutes before resuming,” the PA drone says.
Again the kids go the locker room. “God just did us a favor,” Fennell says as she’s re-herding her troops. “We were tired. Now it’s 30 minutes of rest, six minutes to play.”
The journalist sits on the bench, avoids lightning rods and sends the news back home. “Lightning delay, 30 minutes, still 2-2.” A response comes back: “Noooooooooo!”
Macon weather “experts” gather outside the dressing room, each offering their view of where the storm is. “It’s northeast of here,” one says. (There they go with those direction things again!). “No, we’re on the fringe,” says another. “It’s going to pass,” says another. All these fancy IPhones and no one can tell what the weather’s supposed to do! Welcome to Macon, I guess.
Thirty minutes later out the players come for their five-minute warm-up. Again, lightning strikes. Again, the players return to their locker rooms. Are their any vacancies at the Travel Lodge?
“I’ve got shin splints from coaching and you can quote me on that,” Kohl says as she shakes her head, grabs her clipboard and starts back inside.
Game time again: The 6:04 goes without drama. They attack, we counter with great defense. O’Hanlon, McBride, Belisle, to name a few, are holding them off. In the first of the two, five-minute overtimes, Belisle makes a great save. In the second, Bailey and Shannon again come through.
Even the final horn sounds a bit hoarse as it sounds to send the game into penalty kicks.
The soccer Gods are not with us in penalty kicks. Though Belisle steps up and makes a save and O’Hanlon finds the back of the net with hers, momentum has gone and stayed in the Vikings’ corner. They win 3-1 on PKs and celebrate at their end of the field.
Around 18 yards out and to the side of the goal, reality sets in for our Bears. Too soon to realize all they have accomplished, pain times 12 attacks their blessed systems. Tears, frustrations, vents, love, rants – it’s all present and then some. A journalist watches while a team of soccer girls hold on to each other. Bless their weary hearts and all they stand for.
The End: I’ll end it this way and take up no more of your time. Will send you off to final exams and your summer. Still, let me leave you with this: During one of the lightning breaks, one of my many bosses – Chris Pomar – texted me. It read: We need a hero!
A hero – yes we’re always looking for heroes, not only through sports but through life its own self. The dictionary defines it as “A person of distinguished courage or ability; admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.” Yes, maybe that says it but let me specify if I may. A hero is one who trudges on despite the heat; listens to the coaches; respects their teammates; comes out of the game winded but asks to go right back in. A hero may be hurt but they sit and cheer for all they’re worth anyway, because quite simply that’s all they can do at the time. A hero takes care and loves her teammates, picks them up when they’re down, encourages, coddles, coaxes, inspires. A hero accepts a dare given to them before a big game – accepts without question or attitude, accepts because that’s who she is. A hero doesn’t always win, but a hero always performs, hustles, guts it out. A hero does, quite simply, whatever a hero can do to help in the given situation.
Yes, we’re always looking for heroes – in hallways, on sports fields, on television and even in our homes. Well, I spent one Wednesday afternoon and most of Wednesday night with 24 of them – 24 of them I won’t forget. They include: Sarah Belisle, Amber Abernathy, Bailey McBride, Jordan McBride, Emma van Beuningen, Keller Donnell, Shannon O’Hanlon, Julia Wright, Grace Dennard, Grant Wilmer, Rachel McGovern, Sam Glover, Madeleine Gibson, Katie Jacobs, Rachel Morton, Taylor Anderson, Julia Bird, Madison Collins; Coaches Julie Fennell, Stephani Kohl and Leary Barnes; manager Lizzie Wilmer and team moms Lisa Anderson and Paige Glover.
Coach Kohl said everything that needed to be said on the bus ride over. “I love these girls.”
There you have it. Thanks for being you. And thanks again, for being a hero.
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”
Friday Night Lights