Tuesday, November 12, 2019

NCISAA Division II Soccer Champions!!

Winning the NCISAA Division II Soccer Championship is a cause for huge celebration and rejoicing, and no one is more excited or proud than am I. Winning any state title is a remarkable accomplishment. We had previously done that only four times in my 19 years at Gaston Day: three in girls basketball and one in boys basketball. And it had been a long time since then. We have come so close in boys soccer on numerous occasions, including several runners-up finishes over the last few  years--one just last year. The same has been true in girls volleyball the last two years. The boys victory in the state championship this year was especially consoling because we had just lost the girls volleyball match earlier the same day.

The contest took place on Westchester Country Day's magnificent field against Hickory Christian. Gaston Day already was at a disadvantage because Nate Granetz, one of our best players, was unable to play. The first half ended with Hickory Christian up 1-0, and this was all the more disconcerting because we clearly outplayed their team. I tried to remain positive and not think the worst.

Perhaps with only five minutes elapsed in the second half, Davis Spencer, who was named to the all-state team, scored on a beautiful kick from the right side to tie the game. Perhaps 10 minutes later, Davis went down with an injured knee cap, and again I feared the worst. Davis was out for the rest of the game.

Then something profoundly unexpected and stirring happened. Coach Greg Lekavich moved Ben Spencer, a talented ninth grader up front, where he had played for much of the season. That made sense. But his second substitution was far more bold and unanticipated. He put Chase Owens at the other forward, an eighth grader, who along with Ben Nigbor has starred on the middle school team and only been called up the varsity for the playoffs.

What happened next still puts a lump in my throat and gives me watery eyes as I write this. Those two--one a ninth grader and one an eighth grader with no varsity experience--were able to pressure Hickory Christian's defense and keep the ball on their end of the field for much of the rest of the game. There was a moment during the game when I started crying as I watched Chase Owens dribble past and outrun several Hickory Christian defenders as he sped toward their goal. We did not score on that possession. But the sight of Chase Owens playing fearlessly and beyond his age and experience will always be an unforgettable GDS athletic memory for me. Chase and Ben Spencer were simply beautiful. They could have been--and maybe should have been--overawed, hesitant and timid. They had every right to be. But they were not. Instead, they rose to a moment of greatness and were bold, fierce and attacking. And they held Hickory Christian's team at bay and kept them penned on their own end of the field much of the time. The whole thing was totally moving and inspiring, and I shed more than one tear as I watched them.

Meanwhile Gaston Day's defense hung tough. I don't know how many headers David Efird made on defense, but it was lots and lots. Jack Dee, Jack D'Amore, and Ethan Horkey were also rock solid on defense. Payne Fulghum was great in goal.

With about six minutes left in regulation, finally, it happened on a corner kick. David Efird, who towers over everyone else, headed a perfectly placed kick from Jack Dee into the goal. And we celebrated wildly, but briefly, because there was still time left and Hickory Christian was dangerous. Somehow, the combination of tenacious defense and aggressive offense kept Hickory Christian from scoring. Our other eighth grader, Ben Nigbor, came in and played great defense. We had won our state championship with a final score of 2-1.

Our victory was gratifying at so many levels. First of all, Coach Greg Lekavich, who has led such an amazing soccer program at GDS, got his first, well-deserved state championship. I think his coaching and, in particular, his combination of Ben Spencer and Chase Owens was brilliant. It was also Casey Field, Athletic Director, first state championship and a tribute to him, the entire athletic department and its coaches and players. Let's not forget all the varsity boys soccer players who accomplished so much this season and who came through in the championship when it mattered the most.

I also want to note that Hickory Christian was a great opponent, and the level of sportsmanship during the game was unusually high. Congratulations to Hickory Christian on a great season.

Wow!! What a great day to be a Spartan!! What a fantastic victory!! State champions at last!! Congratulations to the coaches, the team, the parents, the fans, and the entire school. We are the champions!!