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Saturday, February 4, 2012

One save ... one playoff loss

For the longest time, I was starting to think Putnam County simply was not good enough to compete with any other school in any sport when it came time for the state playoffs.

Just didn't see it happening. Three years into the job at the Palatka Daily News and I started to wonder if Jeremy Criscione's dramatic state cross country championship in 2004 or his gold-medal 3,200-meter race in the 2005 track and field state 2A championship and Mickey Gilyard's memorable high jump win over three-sport start Jermaine Taylor at the same 2A meet in Coral Springs was about as good as it was going to get.

As a matter of fact, it had been three years -- three months before I got to the paper -- that Putnam County had won a team-against-team state tournament game or match. In the spring 2003 -- I was still living in New Jersey, wondering what my next job was going to be -- when Katie Brosky pitched Palatka High to a memorable, extra-inning softball victory over New Port Richey Mitchell High School.

I had seen my share of football state tourney losses, basketball state tourney losses, softball state tourney losses, soccer state tourney losses, volleyball state tourney losses. You get the picture.

No matter what the sport, I was leaving the venue having to write a "we fought hard, we just weren't better tonight"-type story by the end of the night.

In 2005, Crescent City Junior-Senior High School's boys soccer team had put together an unbeaten regular season, then went out and won Putnam County's first district championship in soccer, either boys or girls, with a 4-1 triumph at Pierson Taylor High School, a great moment for anyone's journalism career to be able to say they covered.

Well, I wasn't there that night at Taylor High. I was stuck having to lay out the sports section that Friday night as my boss took seriously ill for over a week, so ill as a matter of fact that he wasn't able to cover the Super Bowl in Jacksonville that Sunday night and I had to step in for him.

But he was able to get better for me to make a trip to Crescent City the following week and watch as the Raiders' season came to an end against Trinity Catholic of Ocala, 3-2, in the first round of the state 2A playoffs.

Now it was Thursday, February 2, 2006, a year later. The Raiders were the No. 1 seed in their District 5-3A tournament the week before and, in a three-team district, automatically was going back to the state tournament. But Crescent City lost the district final on its home field to rival Keystone Heights, 1-0. And with an overall record of 4-7-4 -- yes, you read that right, four wins, seven losses and four ties -- I wasn't expecting much from the Raiders in their state tournament opener and rematch with Trinity Catholic, this time the game on Trinity's field in Ocala.

The ride from Palatka to Ocala is just over an hour, depending on traffic, but Trinity Catholic is a tricky school to find because you have to take one of Ocala's diagonal-based roads and if you miss the turn for the field, you're driving around trying to find your way back. Fortunately, I had Mapquested the site for a state tournament game there the week before when I saw the Interlachen High girls soccer team get hammered, 8-0, by Trinity. I had familiarity.

So a quick stop before heading on the diagonal road at a nearby Zaxby's restaurant. Got the chicken strips. Mmmmm good stuff. However, I wasn't too careful of what I was doing in the quasi-dark of my car and found a big ol' barbecue dipping sauce mess on the passenger seat. That stain took a while to clean off, especially when I finally completely spotted the darned thing the next day in broad daylight.

Got to the field with about 10 minutes to spare, wrote down the lineups for both sides and waited as Trinity's public address guy ran through the lineups, played the National Anthem and then had a moment of prayer before the game. I was prepared for this since this was the routine a week before -- in 45-degree weather then as I nearly yelled out, "Goddamnit, get this game started!" All the pomp, prayer and circumstance did was delay the inevitable mercy-rule victory Trinity scored over Interlachen.

This time, though, I wasn't expecting a beatdown. The teams had played during the regular season to a tie. And though Crescent City had a 4-7-4 record, it was a deceiving record since they were playing some of northeast Florida's better programs.

The coach of the Raiders, John Thomas, is as laid back as any coach you are going to meet. His coaching mindset is pretty simple -- winning a game starts with winning in preparation. Though he would raise his voice from time to time, he knew it was up to the players to execute the game plan he and his assistant coaches had put together beforehand.

The normal makeup of Raiders players is of Hispanic or Mexican descent. They love the sport as much as the sky is blue and the day is long. The leaders of this Crescent City team were goalie Arturo Martinez, defender Cesar Hernandez and forwards Ivan Robles and Carlos Villegas, who would be our paper's two-time Player of the Year in the sport, including this particular year.

As Thomas gathered his players together before the start of the match, I can hear him in a subtle, confident tone tell his players to dictate the tempo of the game and take it at Trinity. And so the Raiders hit the field against Trinity's Celtics ready for anything. Unlike the girls game the previous week that I did at Trinity, it was a much more balmy 66 degrees at kickoff, making for a far more comfortable event to be at.

And just like the first regular-season meeting, the game became a midfield battle with neither side's defense giving in to the other. And with the game scoreless at halftime, I wasn't sounding so positive with my boss about this thing being settled in regulation time.

"I might be here awhile," I told him at the first break.

I was right. The second half was almost an uneventful as the first half. Whatever shot either team had on the other, it never threatened to break the scoreless tie. Any dangerous opportunity that opened up Martinez was stepping in the way for Crescent City, as was goalie Aaron Watkins for Trinity on the other side.

Eighty minutes and still no score. Now came the two 10-minute overtime sessions. And it became apparent from the way this was going, both team's defenses were playing for the right to decide it with the dreaded penalty kicks.

So my third update to my boss was to tell him we were going to penalty kicks to decide this one and I'll update him when it's done. The Raiders had done everything they could from the midfield back to the goalie to frustrate the Celtics, who came in with a 13-6-2 record. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch by all rights in favor of Trinity, but they couldn't get anything in on Martinez, who made 12 saves.

Now as the penalty kicks were being set up, I tried to settle in my mind who would be the better goalkeeper, Martinez or Watkins, who had nine saves. In 1988 as a field hockey writer in New Jersey, I figured Toms River North and goalie Linda Kurtyka would have their way in a one-on-one shootout with Shawnee and a backup goalie who came into the game only for the shootout. Wow, was I wrong that day as Shawnee won the shootout and won the South Jersey Group IV title.

That memory stopped me at that moment. Whoever was going to win was going to need a break ... a save perhaps or a well-kicked ball bouncing off a goal post or crossbar or flying over the crossbar.

After Thomas and Trinity Catholic's coach submitted their lineups, the first kicker up was Hernandez. He calmly kicked his shot into the net to make it 1-0. That brought up Cho Hyun-Jick for Trinity. He laced his shot high and out of the reach of Martinez to tie it at 1-1.

Next up for Crescent City was senior midfielder Patrich Buenaventura. I had gotten to know this fine young man when he won a local contest a couple of years earlier after writing an essay about what it was like to be an American and how good he had it in this country. It was a well-written, well-thought essay written by a young man born in the Phillipines -- on the Fourth of July, no less --- and who also spent time in Texas and Canada before settling down with his very wise mother and Crescent City teacher and stepfather in Crescent City.

Buenaventura lined his shot up and looked at where he was going with his kick. He approached the ball and nailed his shot. Watkins, however, guessed right on where Buenaventura was going as he dove low and to his right, the sound of his hand hitting the soccer ball and deflecting it away still resonnating in my mind even today.

Buenaventura, a diminuitive 5-foot-4, 139-pounder with a heart that could practically match his frame and who played center for the football team the previous fall if you could believe that, put his arms back behind his head as he walked away from the 1-1 tie at that point.

Jason Anderson nailed his kick past Martinez to give Trinity a 2-1 lead. Crescent City's third kicker was Robles, who nailed his kick past Watkins to tie it at 2-2, but John Paglia sent the Celtics ahead with another high shot out of the reach of the 5-foot-7 Martinez. Crescent City's Ernique Benitez stepped up and he delivered a penalty kick goal away from Watkins to tie again at 3-3. Still, Martinez was not stopping anything and when Mike Zacco sent a screamer out of the reach of Martinez and into the net to make it 4-3, the clock was nearing midnight in Crescent City's season.

It was up to Villegas to keep the season going. He surveyed the situation, then drilled a shot past a helpless Watkins to make it 4-all. Villegas had done his job. Now it was up to Martinez to do his.

The last kicker of the regular round of shooters was steady defensive player Austin Ankney. Martinez was still jumping around, getting himself motivated -- and maybe trying to psyche out the last Trinity kicker. Ankney stepped up, delivered the kick and, boom! It went out of the reach again of Martinez to his right. The ball tickled the netting behind.

Trinity Catholic players stormed the field to mob Ankney, then Watkins, who made the one save possible for the Celtics to move on to the next round of the state tournament.

Raider players moped around the Trinity field afterward. The one who hurt the most in the end was the likeable Buenaventura as the tears showed. For that moment, he felt as if he let his team down and was the reason why it lost. No, that was not the case. Crescent City never took control of this game and never put a threat out there in the 100 minutes it did play to even think it had a chance to advance.

The record will always say the Raiders lost the game on penalty kicks, 5-4, and that Buenaventura was the lone shooter who didn't score. But that's not the whole story of this one.

Trinity Catholic just wanted it a little more on this February evening. And Thomas sounded as ever hopeful for the future of the program, rather than despondent at that moment. After all, this was not how John Thomas did business.

"I thought it was a great game right to the end," Thomas would say afterward. "It's a bitter pill, but I've swallowed it before. But something like this is going to add to the kids' lives. It's something they'll never forget in their high school lives. I remember seeing tears in the eyes of our players after the loss (to Trinity) last year, too."

No emotion when he said that. Just realism. Almost anyone who has ever played in the Raider program and for Thomas has the highest respect for the man, and understandably so. Thomas is that example of what happens when you take a kid as a kid and let him develop into a young man.

"I gave it my all, my teammates gave it their all. we came up one goal short," Martinez said afterward. He never pointed blame at any individual. He was a senior who understood that this was life. And sometimes life isn't going to be fair, but you roll with the punches and how you respond from the adversity tells a lot about who you grow up to be.

No one would see, though, that it would take four years -- and a German transfer student named Veit Couturier who would add a little something to an Hispanic- and Mexican-based group of players -- before Crescent City would be back on top again, beating Keystone Heights, 1-0, to capture the District 4-3A tournament.

And Buenaventura? Well all he did was graduate No. 1 in his class at Crescent City that spring, then go off to get his degree in chemical engineering at North Carolina State. I felt horrible for that young man that night in Ocala, but it turns out that setback was only minor in the grand scheme of things in that young man's life.

Thomas is still the program's coach and recently, the Raiders won their third straight district championship. And with a 5-2 win over Gainesville P.K. Yonge in the opening round of the Region 2-2A tournament, the Raider boys became the first program in Putnam County history to win a state tournament game.

As for waiting for a state tournament win by a Putnam County program of any kind, I didn't have long to wait ultimately. In late April, almost three months later, Palatka High's softball team broke the skid at 21 straight games Putnam County sports teams lost in the state tournament, by not only winning a first-round state tournament game with Belleview, but following it up with wins over Groveland South Lake and Zephyrhills to make the state 4A Final Four in Plant City, a dramatic way to break the skid.

Fate was cruel that February 2006 night to Crescent City's young men, especially to an amazingly intelligent young man such as Patrich Buenaventura. The loss served as a life lesson. If this was the worst thing that happened to this team, bigger things were going to happen to them in life.

I'm sure they were better for that, too.

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