Saint 4 Years, Saint 4 Life - Part 2
By Mani Tafari
Every footballer gets an extra jolt of energy, passion, and inspiration after watching the World Cup finals. The members of the Saint soccer team in 1998 came into pre-season with hunger and determination. As we walked into the newly redesigned locker room a sign on the front door read “Only Champions Belong Here”.
It was clear very early on in preseason that this would be a completely different team than we had my freshman year. The recently graduated senior class were freshmen when, in 1994, the team won its first conference championship after almost a decade and a half in the wilderness. To replace this special class, Coach recruited the deepest and most talented class in the St. Lawrence history.
A class of more than a dozen skillful and college ready players featured three players I had played club soccer with in Brooklyn. Pooch was a born #10 with close control and a powerful shot. Chunks, the team’s only lefty, was an instant hit and would go on to become a fan favorite mostly due to his amazing ability to make defenders look like they were playing soccer for the first time. Repetition, Reps for short, was a St. Vincent-born center midfielder who had the vision of a soothsayer.
In addition to my former Caribbean teammates, Coach brought in a 6 foot 6 shot-stopper, B-Train, to be an apprentice to our current 6 foot 6 goalie who was entering his senior year. Other standouts included midfielders Bogues, C-Baz, and 42 Cents who each had an amazing work rate and an eye for goal.
Competition up Top
The 1998 version of the Saints was a very talented team. Our deepest position by far was our forward line. Toto, a Ghanaian born winger was now in his junior year and would more than likely lead the line. As for my fellow sophomores, Giggs had returned brimming with confidence after bagging a handful of goals last season, as did our classmate Mad Dog, who came to camp equipped with a “new move” he had mastered and was ready to use on unsuspecting teammates and UCAA (Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association, former name of the Liberty League) conference foes alike. I had improved tremendously from the previous season. I finished the two-mile run in 13 minutes and 15 seconds, a vast improvement, and was ready to dominate as I had expected to during freshman year. I was still among the fastest players on the team, and despite a personally disappointing freshman season, I had never lost my ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
Challenging my class for starting spots were newcomers Big Perm and Hollywood, two players who should have been a part of our class as well. Big Perm had been a dangerous Plattsburgh State striker the year before and was one of the few freshmen who were prominently featured on our scouting report. Hollywood was the most enigmatic member of a team filled with stand-out personalities. He was a player who had transferred from UConn to join forces with Smooth, previously a high school teammate.
Reps could spot a pass from a mile away. Before college, we had played on the same club team in Brooklyn where he was responsible for assisting most of my goals. I knew him as a classic center midfielder. Coach saw us both as right-wingers. As a player at the college level, honest self-assessment is necessary to succeed. Changing the position I played would not be possible. I could not tackle well or head the ball so that ruled out being a defender or midfielder in the system we played. To succeed, I would have to outplay the most creative players on the team.
Two home games to start the season brought two very impressive and entertaining wins. The Baby Saints were playing like veterans. The team was becoming more spontaneous while playing within a general passing system. The Saints began to move to a reggae beat. Halfway through the season, I had bagged three goals and an assist coming off the bench. I was getting regular minutes and gaining confidence with every game. More importantly, we were on a roll. The team would dominate possession and score lines by combining speed, skill, and fitness.
As a sophomore, I was much more accustomed to 5 a.m. 5 mile runs, day-long bike rides through the woods, and Monday afternoon circuits. Circuits were a set of army-like obstacle courses requiring you to jump over, under and around cones of various sizes. In addition, there was no walking permitted at practice. Every movement was done “on the jog”, including changing stations and heading to water breaks.
As the season progressed the team gelled on and off the field. The new Saints fit right in. They immediately raised the level of competition on the team and practices became extremely intense. Every member of the team was technical while having real bite and aggression when playing defense as well.
We were winning games while playing good football, a team that controlled possession with the ability to penetrate as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Importantly, we continued to improve as the season progressed, and finished the season with an unblemished 16-0-0 record. We were primed and ready for the postseason and unlike last year we would be dancing.
The second season was about to begin, and the team had dreams of making a deep run. Every team that plays in the NCAA is a good team. Since our team was making its third appearance in four years, the upperclassmen knew what to expect. There would be larger crowds and more pressure to perform. After two extremely difficult games and hard-fought wins we were in the quarterfinals and one home win away from the Final Four.
We faced Williams in the quarterfinals. Williams were champions in 1995 and had a team bursting with creativity and flair. The Ephs were well coached, enjoyed possessing the ball and had a handful of attacking Jamaican players. These guys were also, like us, extremely fit. A rainy Saturday in Canton, New York spectators and participants alike witnessed an outstanding tournament contest.
1998 UCAA Champions
Going into the game we knew that Williams would be our biggest challenge of the season. A win would mean much more than the Final Four. We were undefeated and confident in our abilities as a team. We had a huge amount of respect for Williams but felt that with destiny and home-field advantage on our side, the day would be ours.
Besting Williams, as any team during that era of college soccer will tell you, is easier said than done. They were aggressive, skillful, and smart, a combination that was difficult to overcome. With our home crowd behind us, we managed to hold a 2-1 lead entering the last minutes of the game. The Jamaicans on Williams were wreaking havoc up top and Russo’s men were playing with a champion’s mettle. The predictable equalizer came soon after and the game headed to overtime where both teams scratched and clawed each other for every inch of forward progress. All even after 120 minutes, the game would be decided from the spot.
We were indeed identical teams with coaches who seemed to be philosophical twins. The winner of the penalty shootout would go on to the Final Four and the unsuccessful team would surely need help to get over the mental anguish. After five spot kicks each the score was still even and we went to sudden death penalties. After what seems like a further ten penalty kicks Williams emerged victorious and were on their way to compete in the Final Four for a National Championship.
Losing in the postseason hurt massively. In the locker room after the game, everyone was unhappy. Coach assured us that we would be back together as a team in the future, since we were the first team to have a perfect season and end the year undefeated. Despite falling in penalties, the game was officially a tie. Those words fell on deaf ears. We were done. All that hard work, all that preparation, all for naught. We were not the best team in the country, this was our chance to live forever, to be remembered as champions, a home game to advance and we blew it.
I was personally devastated. I was not chosen to take a penalty, even worse, I did not play. While the reggae boys on Williams were running at our backline, I was unable to do the same. I should have been ready to contribute after last season. I had begun the year on a tear but failed to maintain form and fitness. Standing in the locker room on that snowy evening, I was halfway through my college career and it had not turned out the way I planned.
Things began to look up in the springtime, and after recovering from my first serious knee injury I returned with extra hunger and desire. I began working on swinging the left peg and tracking hard on defense all the time. I noticed that my game had evolved. I had come to St. Lawrence as a finisher but not a finished product. Playing with quality players over the last two seasons combined with Saint training methods had made me a more complete player. I could always shoot the ball, but now the trigger would be pulled much faster. I went from being a scorer to someone who was able to create as well. Most importantly, I understood that to be good I would have to work hard.
Immediately after losing our playoff game, the team was extremely angry and distressed. Eventually, this anger began to translate to hunger. We were close, and we knew it. Our freshmen and sophomores had experienced a deep playoff run and we were all ready and determined to take the next step. Like my teammates, I committed myself to do whatever it takes to never lose again. The 1999 season started now.
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