Saint 4 Years, Saint 4 Life - Part 3
By Mani Tafari
By Junior year a student-athlete officially becomes an upperclassman. The word potential is removed from your playing card and replaced by a frank analysis of what you bring to the team.
The footballers in my class all had impressive careers up to this point. Bruiser was a two-year starter after nailing down the left back position since early freshman year. Pudge’s calmness on the ball locked him in at right midfield. Giggs and Mad Dog were both among the scoring leaders in the last two seasons, while Smooth had been conference Rookie of the Year and followed up by getting an All-American nod as a sophomore. I was still, after two years, an unknown commodity. It was time for me to shoot or get off the ball.
It was clear that SLU soccer was entering an age of Camelot and I was determined to take my place at Durocher’s roundtable. I spent the summer relentlessly working on my fitness and was finally able to run two miles in under 12 minutes, 11:58 to be exact. I had finally climbed Mount Endurance.
A great man once said, “without confidence, you are twice defeated in the game of life”. Confidence is the most important component of a good player. A pre-season conversation with a former Saint cemented this truth in my mind and changed the trajectory of my career. I had admitted to Brother Rose that my personal goal for the season was to perhaps be the first option up front from the bench. He glanced at me with disappointment and reminded me that two years before, as a freshman, my goal was to break the team’s single-season scoring record. It was a moment of clarity.
I had developed my body and my game to the point of being a much superior player than I was previously, but my confidence had taken a beating over the past two years. You cannot be a great player unless you know you are. I changed my personal goal and aspired to score in double figures. As for the team goal, the objective was crystal clear to anyone around the Saint program, it was to win a National Championship.
I was finally ready for pre-season testing. As usual, I did well in the 40-yard sprints and was one of five players to break the 4.4-second mark. For the first time, I was looking forward to the two-mile run. The track looked smaller, and I felt stronger. I completed the run in 12 minutes and 15 seconds. I had barely missed the mark, but I felt good, the engine was ready for soccer. My teammates did well for the most part, but Coach was not happy. Coach was normally not content during pre-season, but this year he was fuming.
As soon as the final group finished their two-mile run, we were taken on an additional four-mile run led by our coach. We did not come back in good enough shape was the complaint. Without expectation, there can be no disappointment. It was clear early on that our Coach had very high expectations of this group.
The team was brimming with quality, dominated by our Junior and Sophomore Classes. The Sophomores had arrived as freshmen with an abundance of talent and were now experienced as well. The leaders of the team were undoubtedly the Seniors. There were only three on the team. The class size had been decimated over the past years by attrition caused by injuries, competition within the team and the inability of some players to make the necessary sacrifices it took to be a part of the program. The General, Toto and 2000 were the only survivors of a class that began with twelve players.
- The General was the team’s sweeper. A defender who never went to ground was our second-year captain and starting for the fourth consecutive year. The General possessed exceptional speed and strong tackling ability, two attributes necessary for a sweeper on a team that was constantly attacking.
- Toto hit the ground running as a freshman and improved each season. He began his senior year after leading the team in scoring his previous two seasons. The West African born winger was asked to change his position early in pre-season and became the team’s central midfielder.
- 2000 had a very humble start to his Saint career. Before 1999 he had been known best for keeping the overall team GPA reasonable all by himself, he was a skillful player who looked extremely unorthodox when using his skills. This made him highly unpredictable and successful on the dribble. Unlike previous years, 2000 was asked to be the team’s starting right back.
Here We Go Blue
The 1999 Saints were a team on a mission. The team was dominant on the road and ruthless at home. More importantly, we were playing a brand of soccer that entertained the fans who watched us play. We were a passing team and we controlled possession the entire game. Opposing defenses could only switch so much from side to side before the holes began to open.
I was enjoying football again. Despite not being a starter, I was playing a lot and dishing out assists. I had finally found my role on the team. On a team that was known for passing, I was the dribbler and a one-man fast break. Superior speed and stamina allowed me to run at defenders with reckless abandon. Taking on defenders became automatic. It was impossible for defenders to keep up after chasing the very tricky Repetition before I entered games. The team was a well-oiled machine and halfway through the season we had won all our games, most by sizable margins. The secret was having 22 starters as opposed to just 11.
The Saints approached the regular season as simply a warm-up for the real season, the second season. We knew where we would be come November, and the first 17 games of the year were meant to fine tune our system for the ultimate test.
The final game of the regular season was played at Oswego on a very windy day. The team was one win away from posting back to back perfect regular seasons. We won the game 3-0 and I had two helpers to my classmates Mad Dog and Smooth. A 17-0-0 regular season was complete. We had been here before, this was a good accomplishment, but we did not celebrate.
Dance With Me
We opened the playoffs after being ranked number one the entire year. A shaky opening game was won by two very late goals by Smooth and Big Perm. Next up were Plattsburgh who scored an early goal and had us on our heels at home. Plattsburgh were the powerhouse team in the SUNYAC. They came to play, and although the game was played in Canton, the Cardinals were well supported by their dedicated fans. Repetition and Giggs were the heroes of the day as the team staged a big come from behind win.
Another Elite Eight Classic
After falling in the quarterfinals, the year before, the team was eager to get over the hump. Unlike last year when Williams paid a visit, we would be road warriors facing a Messiah team that had just knocked off the defending champions by a three-goal margin. Messiah was a powerhouse program who were known for playing great soccer and having an extremely passionate alumni base. They had some of the most passionate fans in college soccer.
Facing a strong team with passionate fans can be intimidating. During warm-ups, it was clear that, like last season’s semi-final, this would be a war. Our team was overcome by nirvana when the loudspeakers blasted the always melodic “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In”.
The breakthrough came in the first five minutes after Toto spread wide to Reps who broke down the right side and centered to a waiting Hollywood who scored a rare headed goal.
A team does not make it to the Elite Eight without having great character, and Messiah demonstrated that they were no exception. This was the game when B-Train, our 6-foot 6-inch sophomore goalie came into his own. B-Train was starting for the first season on a team with big ambitions. He was our baby Brother, but throughout the season he became a man. Not only was he a goalkeeper who could make big stops, but he would make them at very key moments of the game. B-Train’s tenth shutout of the year allowed us to leave Pennsylvania with a hard-fought 1-0 win. Next stop Final Four.
All Final Four participants ate Thanksgiving dinner together. Student-athletes from Wheaton, Richard Stockton, Alma and St. Lawrence enjoyed a wonderful feast while mingling and getting to know each other outside the field of play. The dinner was capped by speeches from the captains of all four teams. Our representative, Toto was the last to speak. His speech was short and to the point, may the hungriest team win.
Eat Di Food
The Saints soccer team established 1962 was in the Final Four for the first time, but again no one celebrated. We were 20-0 on the season, but we needed two more wins. We would have to earn those wins at the home of the best team in the country over the past fifteen years.
Wheaton was a program that was dripping with talent and class. They were coached by the legendary Bean and led by two strikers with 5 All American nods combined. In addition, they already had Football heritage. Winners of the 1984 National Championship, Wheaton had added another title two years before in 1997, which meant their seniors and juniors had a taste of glory and wanted more.
Before we had a chance to face Wheaton however, we would first have to face a dangerous Alma team. Thirty seconds into the game and we were a goal post and the General’s right boot away from being down by two goals. Coach called my number very early in the game and I was ready. It had been a crazy twelve months. A year ago, I was watching from the sidelines as our season ended, now I was about to play most of the game that could see us into the National Championship. The pace of the game was extremely intense, and coach expected me to lift it even higher. For the first time all season I was playing with Reps and we were attacking the opposition on alternate flanks.
Halfway through the first half, a Bogie rocket had us up 1-0 and our ever-present fans, who had traveled to Chicago, erupted with joy. Minutes later, and another Reps to Hollywood combination gave us a 2-0 lead. We were able to control the pace of the game and earn a hard-fought victory despite some nervous moments against a very talented Alma team.
We had played the first game of a Final Four doubleheader. Our coaching staff had stayed to watch the second match that would decide our opponents in the Final. They saw what we all knew, Wheaton was very very good. They had dispatched a very talented Richard Stockton team 4-0 and were in a final for the second time in three years.
For the past two seasons, we had felt as though we were a team of destiny. The loss in the quarterfinals the year before hurt so much because of the feeling we all had that it was our time. In 1994, our goalkeeper, The First Beatle, had declared back then that we had arrived as a national power, this was our chance to cement his words.
We were up against an all-time great team who were playing a championship game in front of their home crowd. A team who had been here before. The one thing we did have going for us was an unbelievable amount of team and individual confidence. We also had Repetition, the St. Vincent international had assisted in each of the four playoff games and was playing lights out.
Like the Messiah quarter-final we hit Wheaton hard and fast. Within two minutes Reps broke down the right flank and centered to an onrushing Giggs who made no mistake with a one-touch finish. Wheaton was not rattled, they continued to come at us with dangerous combinations up top and intricate midfield passing.
Coach gave me the signal and called me over for a quick talk before sending me in. This is it he said, I need everything you have. The atmosphere of a national championship game is amazing. There was a big crowd, but when you are on the field, instinct takes over and you begin to play a game you have played since first grade.
Halfway through the first half and we won a free kick in a dangerous area. A hard-driven ball into the box from Chunks found 2000 who used the back of his head to score while facing the opposite direction. This type of play was very characteristic for the unorthodox 2000 whose goal gave us a 2-0 lead heading into the half.
As the second half began, Wheaton threw everything at us including the kitchen sink and the old boxes in the attic. Wheaton were champions and they played like it.
Entering the game in the second half, I knew that my main responsibility would be tracking back and applying pressure on the Wheaton full backs when we were out of possession. With time winding down, Wheaton began to press even more, and I had opportunities to hit them on the break and look for Mad Dog in the middle of the box.
There were two minutes left on the clock and we had a two-goal lead in the National Championship game. It dawned on me that we might just win this thing. It was a great day to be a Saint. When the clock hit zero, I ran over to Durocher and helped to hold him down while the boys got him with the celebratory Gatorade shower. As always, after every game, we did our warm-down jog across the field and thanked our traveling fans.
Each member of the team reacted in different ways at the sound of the final whistle. Hollywood, Smooth, and The General all shed tears while the baby saints Watsy, Wolfe, and Koko were beaming in disbelief. As for me, I was overjoyed. This was why I had chosen to attend St. Lawrence over any other school. I knew that Coach had a philosophy and a plan to achieve the ultimate goal.
Durocher had spent the last 20 years planning for this moment, first as a stand out in college at Ithaca, then as Head Coach. He had pushed us extra hard this year because he knew that this group if handled the right way, could reach the Promised Land.
That night we partied like it was 1999.
The most memorable thing about winning the National Championship was the welcome we received when we got home. Canton embraced us like heroes. With most students home on break, the entire community came out to congratulate the team. Our biggest fan by far was our patriarch, Coach Goodwin. Goodwin was coach during the last golden era of Saint soccer. Although he no longer coached the team, he was always present as an old sage who would drop knowledge to inspire us all.
Surrounded by patriarchs, fans, and professors our captains thanked the crowd and expressed our appreciation to everyone who came to support us every game rain, shine or snow.
Amid all the celebration, one thought kept going through my head, we must do this again.
I was off to Europe to study in the birthplace of football. My spring would be spent in London, Manchester, and Liverpool playing football every day in preparation for the title defense. I had one more year to play and another title to earn before the end of my collegiate career.
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