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Kicking It Up A Notch

This is my blog. So today I’d like to tell you about my soccer team.

Except it isn’t my team. It’s theirs.

The game before Xavier — a 1-0 win over higher-ranked Newtown — elicited a joyous celebration. (Photo/Kim Lake)

The Staples High School boys soccer squad finished its season last week. We lost in the state tournament quarterfinals, 1-0 to Xavier.

The game was a lot closer than that tight score. A long 2nd-half shot hit the underside of the crossbar. It caromed down, directly onto the foot of a Falcon. He scored from close range.

That inspired our guys to battle even harder than before. We had our chances; we just couldn’t convert. The final whistle blew. Xavier remained undefeated. We should have headed to our bus.

Except we didn’t. For 20 minutes — long after the traditional post-game handshakes — players and coaches sat on the field. Through tears, we talked about the season that ended so abruptly. No one wanted to leave.

The 12 graduating seniors will miss playing in front of large crowds on The Hill. They’ll also miss playing with their “brothers.” (Photo/Kim Lake)

We wanted the season to keep going. Our goal — as it is every year — was to win our final match. We wanted another chance at Ridgefield — a team we’d tied earlier in the fall — in the semifinals. Then another shot at Greenwich, in the finals. The Cardinals were #8 in the country. We’d played them evenly for much of our regular season game. But then they pulled ahead, and thumped us.

Yet there was a more important reason everyone sat around, in the cold aftermath of that quarterfinal loss. No one wanted the season to end, because that would mean the fraying of the tightest bonds I’d ever seen one group forge.

Before every match, the Wreckers huddled together on the field. (Photo/Kim Lake)

The end of a season hurts even worse the next morning. I know, because I’ve been through it too many times. If you’re any good at all, odds are enormous that your season will end in a loss. Only one team wins it all.

All that next day, our players tried to make sense of the loss. They’d done everything “right.” More than 40 times, from January through June, they’d met for 6 a.m. fitness sessions. They’d run grueling hills, like the one by Elvira’s, all summer long. They’d played incessantly. They’d sacrificed social lives. They’d cut their hair into Mohawks, as a show of team solidarity.

They’d overcome astonishing adversity, including the worst string of injuries I’ve ever seen — 4 concussions, a bad knee injury, a severely pulled hamstring, a dislocated elbow, a badly bruised foot and more — yet never complained.

Diego Alanis (front) and Michael Reid, Jack Scott and Charlie Leonard play swarming soccer. (Photo/Kim Lake)

They bounced back from a loss in the FCIAC tournament to put together the most focused, frighteningly intense week of training I’ve ever seen.

In the state tourney they knocked off defending state champs Norwalk 1-0 with a goal in the final 3 minutes, then gutted out a great victory against an excellent Newtown side, again by a 1-0 score.

They’d done everything “right” — everything the coaches asked, and they asked of themselves, and much more — yet they did not get what they “deserved.”

That sounds like a group of entitled Westport kids, wanting to win just because. It’s not. It’s a group of still-growing teenagers, trying to make sense of a wonderful, wild, compelling and cruel game. And, in trying to understand a game, learning about life.

On Sunday afternoon — the day after the loss — a player called. He just wanted to talk.

Yousef Shahin works his magic. (Photo/Kim Lake)

I wasn’t sure I could help. “There are no words,” I’d said to the team 24 hours earlier. “Nothing I can say can make you feel better.”

Still, I tried. I told the athlete that no, we hadn’t reached our destination. We had not gotten a state championship. We’d lost our last game of the season.

But, I said, that did not mean that the journey was not worthwhile. I told him I hoped the stops along the way — the work he’d put in, the friendships he’d made, the laughs he’d shared, the highs of victories and the agonies of defeats — were at least as important as the destination.

Trophies tarnish, I said. They gather dust. What he will keep in his heart from this year will never fade.

Charlie Leonard fires a shot against Fairfield Ludlowe. (Photo/Kim Lake)

As we talked, I realized something else. I told this young man that I was proud of his passion. I was glad he had taken the loss so hard, had sobbed because of it. In a world in which too many people — of all ages — take the easy way out, this team stood apart.

They did not point fingers. They did not look for excuses. They gave everything they had to a cause. They committed themselves fully to a common goal. They cared about their school, and their sport. Most importantly, they cared about each other.

I told the player that, too. I hope it helped him to hear it. I know it did me some good to say it.

As the Staples team and fans celebrated a state tournament win against Norwalk, co-captain Jack Scott comforted an opponent. (Photo/MaryGrace Gudis)

The next day, in a classroom, we held our final team meeting. We reflected a bit on the year. We laughed, as we often had. Then we talked about next year. The 2014 season is 10 months away, but it’s also right around the corner.

When the meeting was over, I sat with a few seniors.

Several juniors headed to the field. They trained until it was too dark to see.

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