When it comes to any sort of sporting endeavor, there is nothing more difficult for a team than running the table for a perfect season and taking home the championship trophy. Many in the business believe a loss or two during the season can be advantageous for a quality team in the postseason. The taste of a loss can often fuel a fire inside and make a squad perform even a little bit better.
Then again, it’s pretty awesome to try and make a run at a perfect season. It’s the rarest event in team sports and much like the movie "Highlander," in the end there can only be one.
The most difficult thing dealing with an undefeated regular season is the fact that there is no more room for a stumble, once the postseason arrives. Short of losing in a state championship game, there is arguably nothing more heartbreaking than seeing an undefeated run end in the final moments of an opening-round contest.
For the players, coaches and supporters of the previously undefeated Stadium Tigers boys’ soccer team, this was indeed the feeling in the chilly, night air on Tuesday, May 16, at Mt. Tahoma Stadium.
The Tigers entered the match at the top of the state 3A rankings and boasted an astounding 17-0 record with the Pierce County League championship title in their pocket. Entering their first-round state tournament matchup against the West Seattle Wildcats, Stadium had outscored their opponents by a total of 83-6. For those deep into soccer statistics, a plus-77 goal differential is flat-out ridiculous and proof positive as to why Stadium was seen as the squad to beat in the 16-team, 3A state tournament field.
When the game is remembered down the road, many will recall the final minute in the second overtime. A substitution in the final moments backfired immediately and in the most dramatic way possible. As fans, players and coaches were beginning to expect a penalty kick shootout in a matter of seconds, West Seattle’s players were still in attack mode, with the ball in the shadow of the Stadium goal.
With a minute left in the second overtime, Stadium head coach Raphael Cox made a substitution that was actually rather textbook. He saw a shootout looming and wanted to get the best penalty kickers on the field before time expired, so they would be eligible to kick. Out came senior starting goalkeeper Ryan Naylor, and in came junior Ethan Saarenas, who had been on the chilly sidelines for the entirety of the game.
One factor that was obviously not weighed heavily and quickly enough was the fact that West Seattle had a throw-in coming up very deep into the Stadium end of the field. The ball was thrown in to West Seattle’s Alex Coronado, who turned and sent a mid-range blast from the angle. The ball had some strong spin on it, and when it hit Saarenas’ gloves, the ball squirted out, falling just inside the goal line.
The throng of Stadium fans fell silent in the stands, stunned by the enormity and swiftness of a dream season’s end. Tears flowed and a few players were inconsolable. It was like watching a full-court buzzer beater in basketball, or a Hail Mary touchdown toss in football for a huge upset victory. It really felt like there was no possible way that what happened, just happened.
When folks look back at the entirety of the game, they should also remember senior forward Logan Barker being taken down on a clear breakaway. No foul was called. It was going to be Barker versus the goalkeeper, except it just didn’t happen. The number of near-misses on the West Seattle goal are too numerous to go into detail. Had the ball spun or bounced a little differently, the Tigers may have entered the final moments of the match holding a 4-1 lead, instead of a 1-1 tie.
One thing that should not be forgotten is the sensational goal put in by junior defenseman Kendall Burks. The two-time Tacoma Weekly All-City selection slapped a free kick from nearly 40 yards out. The ball looked as though it was heading outside of the far post, but it began to banana and fell just inside the upper-right corner of the goal. It’s a shame that this is not the goal that will be remembered due to the final moments in the match.
While there were several Tacoma-area soccer teams who had a chance to make some noise in the postseason, Stadium was easily everyone’s pick for a possible, or probably, state championship run. When the dust had settled by the end of the first round, all but 1A Charles Wright had been knocked out of the running. Cinderella seasons by Mt. Tahoma and Lincoln came to a close in the district tournament, while regulars such as Bellarmine and Wilson were also tripped up. Even longtime powerhouse Fife was upended in the first round of the 2A tournament.
However, there are still some opportunities for Tacoma’s best to make some noise in the postseason. The Stadium and Wilson fastpitch teams take to the fields at Sprinker beginning on Friday, May 19, with state tournament berths on the line. Also the Lincoln girls’ tennis team is back at it again, having went 15-0 during the regular season and looking strong for some state opportunities. Of course, let’s not forget the Lincoln track and field team, nor both Bellarmine golf teams.