I never set foot on an athletic field in High School. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if Princeton High School even had a football team in the eighties. (But I think they had a soccer team). Suffice it to say, I did not understand the world of varsity athletics – what playing a varsity sport actually entailed, or what teammates really meant to each other.
But, I will say, I love a good sports movie. I mean, I truly enjoy watching the inspirational tales (especially the true stories) of underdog teams who make it to the finals against all odds, miracles on ice, Cinderella stories, athletes that overcome adversity, I’ve seen them all – multiple times. (With plenty of tissues on hand). I’m also literally the biggest fan of the Olympics. Every two years, my family knows that I will be fanatically watching every moment of coverage of sports I never even cared about until those two weeks, and then I’m glued to the television for days and nights on end rooting for athletes in the ski jump and the Nordic combined and I can’t even pronounce their names. Because those athletes made it to the OLYMPICS.
So, imagine when we had our very own real life version of an inspirational, spectacular finish of a sports season happen in 2020. [Big Cheers!!]. High school varsity athletes and coaches have had to navigate their seasons in the midst of a pandemic, with no guidebook – and our soccer player has been a part of that. And the last week of Joe’s soccer season perhaps provided the most twists and turns, emotional ups and downs, and outright drama that I have seen either in a movie, or experienced in real life. It was nothing short of exhausting and exhilarating.
These young men on the Hopewell Valley Central High School soccer team have proven their resiliency all season, enduring all the weirdness of sports in 2020; Health checks, canceled practices, schedule changes, not knowing each day if the season could get shut down, playing each game as if it might be their last. They all took care of each other, relied on each other, and kept themselves healthy for the past three months, leading in to the post season sectional finals. And then things really got interesting.
Their team was supposed to have their State sectional quarter final on a Tuesday evening. They had a remote day at school Monday, so I was cautiously optimistic that all would be fine. Since no one had been at school since the Friday before, things were unlikely to unravel (I thought) with a positive case coming to light at the high school. But, alas, at 2pm on Tuesday, we got an email that there was a positive case identified, and the student had been in school THAT DAY.
The coach reached out immediately to say that the game was “postponed”…but honestly we all thought they were done. The semi finals were scheduled for Thursday, and the finals for Saturday; obviously they couldn’t hold up the tournament, so the possibility was very real that they would have to forfeit the game.
All the boys on the team began texting each other, Joe wandered in and out of my office at home pacing and running his fingers through his hair. I tried to stay mostly silent, knowing nothing that I could say was going to be helpful. Later that evening, he and his best friend Matt took a drive (they called it their “cry drive” – they went to the field at the high school, got food at WAWA and hung out together). I admit, I did some of my own crying too. In the meantime, I was obsessively searching the high school soccer schedule on NJ.com, (complete coverage of high school sports…) and I saw that their game was moved on the calendar to Wednesday, but I knew it had to be contingent upon the whole team being cleared in time from the contact tracing. Still, there was a glimmer of hope.
Wednesday morning arrived and we were on pins & needles. I was very distracted and I kept refreshing my email to see if there was any news. At around Noon, Joe came tearing down the stairs and leaping into my office exclaiming: GAME IS ON!!!! GAME IS ON!!!! So we cried again – this time in relief. The email subject line from the coach was: LACE UP. Loud music was played in Joe’s room all day and there was some dancing too.
The HV Bulldogs went into that game Wednesday night with a TON of adrenaline, and took the field by a hundred fold teenage force. It was fantastically exciting, hard fought, fearless, all heart, tied up at the end of the game, ending up going into double Overtime…and they WON. They came away with a win on their home field in the quarter sectional finals, after just hours before not being sure they would even get to play the game.
It was like a movie. And it was not over! They had to turn around and play THE NEXT AFTERNOON, after playing two hours of full out soccer in freezing cold temperatures, with cramping muscles, bruises, and coming out a little battered. Add to that – their goalie had hurt his ankle, and ended up spending a late night in the ER. This was setting up to be a classic scenario of an underdog team rising up from adversity to challenge the more experienced, nationally ranked team that was pretty much anointed champion before the game was even played. IT JUST DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THAT.
They were all a little emotionally overwrought and wiped out from the night before, (Joe sat at virtual school the next morning with a heating pad on his leg and bowl full of bananas), but these boys absolutely pulled it together. Their opponent had literally rolled over every other team they had played this season, and had many days of rest to boot. But the Bulldogs came out strong, scored first, and stayed in the lead until the second half; they fought all the way. We cheered loudly. The loss was ultimately 3-1, but the opposing team was confident on their home field, and hadn’t played an entire game less than 24 hours before! So I absolutely consider it a win for our boys – because most importantly, and above all else, in the midst of a Pandemic, they got to play their last two games on their terms, and with all the uncertainty, put their hearts all out there, instead of having the season fizzle to an end out of their control.
These athletes showed a maturity and understanding that was beyond their years, they kept themselves healthy all season and put their teammates first – and the stuff that was out of their control was just that – I am so thankful it all worked out for them, that they were supported on so many fronts- by the school district, their coaches, the State athletic governing body. They eeked out this season in the nick of time.
We have certainly lost a lot of things this year, there has been no shortage of struggles. Our teenagers have made sacrifices, and we as parents have worried on a scale that is not measured. The world has felt so out of control, but perhaps we all gained some perspective. We could say that it wasn’t a true soccer season because it wasn’t a traditional schedule, there was no county tournament, no Varsity trip, no State finals in the way everyone was accustomed to. But in the heavy plus column is that many of us appreciated this season more than any other that came before it. We cheered a little louder, hugged our athletes a little tighter. Gave each other a little more grace. Each game that came and went, we all exhaled a little more.
I, for one, appreciated that in a world that feels very fearful, I could watch these guys be absolutely fearless out on the soccer field. Twice a week, for a couple of hours, I almost forgot we were living in a pandemic, except for the mask on my face. I am grateful for every moment, and I know these boys are grateful for each other, perhaps even more than they would have been in a “normal” year. There were no “would haves” “could haves” or “should haves”. They truly left it all out in the field, and I gained an understanding of Varsity athletics in a way I never expected to.
In the second half of the final game, near the end, when Joe was on the bench for a couple of minutes, I heard him yelling to his teammates on the field: “DEFEND AS A UNIT!”. I would say that they did just that, both on the field, and off.
The sting of the losses will fade in time, but the moments they shared, and the friendships they nurtured – they will keep those forever. Well done, Bulldogs, we got some true inspiration in this excruciating year. I’m exhaling now.