Note : The following column was published in Wootton’s Common Sense newspaper.
When the boys’ varsity soccer team entered their stadium for their playoff game against Northwest on Oct. 30, it did not matter that the team was 12-0-2. It did not matter that they were the higher seed in the game, or that they had handily defeated state contending teams during the regular season. All that mattered was whether they could capture an elusive postseason victory. And it was a task that the team did not take lightly.
In recent years, the team bowed out in the early rounds of the playoffs, cutting short promising seasons. A first-round loss to Richard Montgomery last year doomed the Patriots last year, and with the graduation of a talented senior class, a repeat of the team’s stellar regular season was far from certain. Though the team’s talent level dipped, the players’ drive to succeed in the playoffs rocketed.
“Honestly, we thought our peak was last year because we had an incredible team and all the talent in the world,’ senior midfielder and captain Nick Bonilla said. “Coming into this year, we knew that we wanted revenge. This year we don’t have the same talent, but we have more tenacity. We have this connection, this bond. Last year players fought, but this year everyone’s playing as one team.”
The chemistry and unity paid dividends on the field. The Patriots earned a stellar 12-0-2 record and once again nabbed a second seed in their section of the 4A West bracket and home field advantage for their first playoff match.
While the undefeated regular season did not matter once the Patriots reached the playoffs, it certainly put a target on their backs. ““All of the teams we’ve beaten want a chance at beating us,” senior defender Kevin Scher said. “Against Northwest, we were shaking hands during the regular season, their coach said “the wrong team won, we’ll see you again.” Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure, but if we play the way we’ve played all year, we’ll be fine.”
Sure enough, the Patriots’ opponent after the first-round bye was a familiar foe – the same Northwest Jaguars team that the Patriots had matched up against in the tense regular season battle. Leading up to the game, the team adopted a more serious mentality and understood the high stakes. For the team’s seniors, they realized that it could be their final game donning the red, white and blue.
The playoff match was every bit the battle that it promised to be. The two sides clashed in an aggressive, low-scoring duel, and at the end of regulation the score was knotted at one goal apiece. Suddenly, everything, from the offseason training to the 12-0-1 record to the team’s hardest efforts, was up in the air.
“The fact that we had gone through so much, we’ve been training through summer, and in one moment our season could change and we could have either won that game or lost that game,” Bonilla said.
Following a couple of aggressive strikes by Northwest, junior forward Alek Wroblewski blasted a free kick towards the goal, and when the Northwest goalie deflected the kick, junior forward Andy Ram was in perfect position. Ram nudged the ball into the net, and after a split-second of disbelief, the team, and its raucous home crowd, erupted into euphoria. Ram tore off his uniform and dashed across the sideline, as his teammates chased him down and reveled in their long-awaited playoff victory.
The 2-1 result was one of the most thrilling moments of the fall for the Patriots, but the celebration didn’t last forever. The Gaithersburg Trojans would be waiting for them just two days later, one more step in a hopeful championship run. “For us as captains, we told our players to celebrate this win for tonight,” Bonilla said. “But tomorrow, we’re coming back at it.”