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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The make-or-break first year with the make-or-break championship match

My first winter of covering soccer in Florida came in the 1999-2000 season in the Florida Keys. And it was a good winter, too.

There was the Key West High boys soccer team of coach John Pierzchala, a veteran club that had been cut short in the previous two district tournament championship matches against Cardinal Gibbons High of Fort Lauderdale.

There was the great story of the young ladies at Coral Shores High School in the Upper Keys led by head coach Diane Powers Wischmeier, a small, but fiery redhead whose Hurricanes were having a breakout season.

And then there was the tumultuous first season of new coach Scott Paul and the Key West High girls soccer team. The Ohio native had a very talented team, but he ran into one very big problem -- he was replacing a very popular coach named Tim Conrad, whose 1998-99 Key West team won a district championship and big things were expected under the new coach.

Except the new coach was not as "friendly" as the previous guy was. And this was causing major issues. The team was losing matches it probably should have won to start the season. But everything came to a head during the 1999 holiday season. The Conchs were playing in a tournament in the Fort Myers area and not only did they lose all their matches, Paul was angry because some players either didn't show up physically or were there physically but weren't taking the tournament all that seriously.

It was right after the tournament had wound up and the team was back in Key West that I made a phone call to Paul. It was Monday, January 3, 2000. I was the only one working full-time in the sports department after my so-called "assistant" decided to move to another branch of our newspaper to work for them because he didn't like the fact that I took the sports editor's job he wanted away from him the previous summer and he just simply didn't like me. So I toughed it out by my lonesome until further notice.

When I got Paul, I asked him how he did. He had told me the tournament was a disaster and he gave me the scores. But then he went one step further ... he had written a statement that he wanted me to copy verbatim into the newspaper so he could get the message across.

Now, I knew this was professional suicide, mainly for him and his burgeoning coaching career in the Southernmost City. What little I knew about this back-stabbing little town was that you didn't talk down and you didn't turn your back on the knife-wielders. Personally, I couldn't have given two craps about the repercussions as far as putting it into the paper was concerned. But I did care about what he was telling me.

By the third sentence, I told my new friend to stop. I wanted him to take a step back in knowing what it was he was doing and saying and what kind of effect it was going to have on not just his program, but the school and perhaps this little town. I said to him, "I have highlight and delete buttons. We can stop this if you'd like and pretend nothing happened."

He respected me for what I was telling him. But he wasn't going to be stopped.

"No," he said. "I'm going on, brother."

And so he did. It was about seven or eight sentences long, but it made for a nice, little tidy paragraph basically pummeling the malcontents on the team who were dragging this club down. He basically put it out there of "it's my way or the highway." Needless to say, Paul got the attention of those he felt were underachievers and yes, he lost at least two or three girls on the team, at least two of which were seniors who were still devoted to the old regime and the more laid-back approach.

This was not how Scott Paul was going to run things at Key West High School along with partner in crime Tony Chiello -- not necessarily with an iron fist, but an understanding that if they were going to win and be successful, they were going to have to adhere to what he and Chiello were teaching them and having to work uber-hard to get to their goals.

Scott Paul could have lost the team that January 4, 2000. To most observers -- including my former assistant, who went on the sports radio talk show to tell the host that he thought Paul was insane in not so many words to call his players out like he did -- this should have been the end.

But a funny thing happened soon after that -- the Conchs came together. And the team began to win.

And so they got to the District 16-2A tournament less than a month later and won their semifinal battle with tough Cardinal Gibbons to get to the championship, which was slated for Friday, February 4, 2000, a month after the Paul "statement" that may have lost the team. Because we had no Saturday paper at the time, this gave me a chance to plan out what kind of soccer coverage we were going to have that day. I had the Key West boys and Coral Shores girls playing for district titles, too.

So two days in advance, I had contacted a young man named Shane Liddick, who was on loan from the news department until I got a full-time assistant, to go over to Tommy Roberts Stadium to cover Key West's boys district championship that night with Cardinal Gibbons. I called up Wischmeier to tell her there was an outside shot I may swing by to where she was at Palmer Trinity in the south part of Miami to see her Hurricanes play in the District 16-1A final against host Palmer.

That left me to go to Miami to cover Key West's girls battle with host Gulliver Prep, the current bully of that district and the top seed. Over the 2 1/2 years I worked in Key West, I grew familiar with the trip to 88th Street and a right turn off US-1 that took me to Gulliver Prep.

It was on this particular Friday my girlfriend was off from her dental hygienist job in her Big Pine Key, so we planned a day where we would get up at about 9 in the morning and head north by noon to make it to Gulliver Prep for a 4 p.m. game. We gave ourselves plenty of time to stop for gas, pick up any small breakfast-like food along the way and just let her sit back and enjoy the beauty of the Keys on the Overseas Highway heading to Florida City with the sun roof open in my 1993 Ford Thunderbird LX, still the most beautiful car I ever owned.

We got to Gulliver by about 3:30 in the afternoon after shooting straight up US-1 into south Miami, then making that right turn onto SE 88th and going a couple of miles until seeing the school on the left side. She and I had a little bit of a walk from the parking lot to going around the building until getting to the field in the back of the school, but already, there was a nice crowd of fans assembled, mostly for the home Raiders, who like Paul were coached by a first-year mentor named Joe Maurer.

Key West had yet to beat Gulliver in two games this season, but Paul went in feeling very optimistic that his team had come together at the right time and now in this final, it would culminate in a championship. My girlfriend didn't mind sitting in the bleachers while I covered this game, walking the other side of the field where the two teams were assembled.

From the opening whistle, I knew this was going to be a "first-goal wins" kind of battle. The Conchs had some key players in their midfield and defense like Diane Herlihy and Mary Meyer, but their defensive stopper was senior goalkeeper Keia Hughes, who was recruited to play the goal even though she stood all 5-foot-2. But let me tell you something, she got the most out of her height and abilities.

Gulliver had the better of the play in regulation time and in a number of cases, the Raiders may have gotten on the scoreboard, but Meyer was there to sweep away any problems in the back and Hughes was there to make one timely save after another, some diving stops to keep the game scoreless.

To Gulliver girls, it was slowly becoming a frustrating afternoon on their own field. I felt they believed they could just walk onto their field and handle their business against the Conchs, not that I thought they looked completely down on the them, but they had that air about them that nobody was going to beat them.

Eighty minutes came and 80 minutes went with neither team scoring. This meant that the game would have to go to 10-minute overtime periods. Those had to be played out unlike today's rule that allows for a "golden goal" to end a game in overtime. So two 10-minute periods came and went like the 80 regulation minutes. Still nothing ... well, except a fiery Italian in Chiello walking away from a possible red card because he got frustrated with the lack of calls that were being made against the more physical Raiders. Word had it that he just left and walked around Gulliver's campus while the rest of the game went on. I'm sure Paul might have needed him somewhere, but the way this game was going, it didn't matter.

The game went into third and fourth five-minute "sudden-death" overtime periods. The first goal here would win the game. But Key West's defense and midfield wasn't going to allow Gulliver to get anywhere near the Conchs' box and the same went for the Gulliver defense.

So after 110 minutes of soccer and the sun starting to go down in the beautiful blue south Miami sky, this classic of a championship was going to be decided by the dreaded penalty kicks. Neither Maurer or Paul was happy with this. Both coaches agreed afterward they would've played all night to get a winner on the field, though Maurer wasn't going to be as agreeable after the end result.

I can still see the process that Paul was going through with his players on who was going to take what kick. That took about five minutes for him to decide. When the officials had their lists of who was kicking when, both teams' players assembled in separate groups on the east side of the field, all eyes fixated on this end.

Was this going to be the story of a lifetime that I was about to write -- how a coach read his players the riot act exactly one month earlier, then watched as his regrouped girls took home a district championship from the big, bad Raiders of Gulliver Prep? That scenario was rolling around in my head, but I needed a finishing plot in what would be a 12-yard scenic panorama. Gulliver won the toss and elected to kick first against Hughes.

So up stepped top offensive player Jackie Garcia. Garcia signaled she was ready. So did Hughes. Garcia ran on to the ball and booted her shot to Hughes' right. Keia Hughes guessed right, getting her big paw on the ball and knocking it away.

Key West players and fans were cheering loudly. They had stuck the first dagger in the Raiders' hopes.

Up next for Key West was Amber Rivas, a sure-footed scorer. She sized up goalie Megan Rivera and once the official whistled her to go, she raced up to the ball and put her shot to Rivera's left side. Once again, though, a goalie guessed correctly and Rivera punched the shot away.

Now it was Gulliver players' and fans' turns to squeal in pleasure. Next was midfielder Emily Schweim. She got the go-ahead from the official and laced a shot that eluded Hughes to her right and high and into the net, a Gulliver player finally taking advantage of Hughes' height, to make it 1-0.

Up now was Jessica Eden for Key West, a young player with a lot of potential. She stepped up and like a veteran, delivered a kick that Rivera guessed correctly on going left, but the power of the shot was not enough to knock it away. It trickled into the net to tie it up at 1-1.

New life with three kicks left to go. Next up was talented Gulliver sweeper Jillian Papa. She, like Schweim, was looking to go high on Hughes, but had too much mustard on the shot -- it sailed over the crossbar. Key West folks were in joy, but it was still tied up. The Conchs needed to take the lead.

Up next was Meyer. Meyer had a devastating foot and a keen sense for clearing a ball. Now she was being tested in one-on-ones with the goalie. She sized up her attempt and decided to go left of Rivera like Eden did. But her shot was too far of the mark and it stayed at 1-1.

As the darkness was beginning to approach, I did catch an eye on my girlfriend, who even from a distance I could see was really into this sports drama, even if she wasn't completely into sports and only took an interest because I was into sports and had made that my profession.

For the fourth round, Gulliver chose midfielder Stephanie Gilewicz. She didn't decide to go wide or really high on Hughes. She chose a route that no goalie could ever anticipate a shooter going -- she shot straight ahead and a bit high at Hughes. The goalie was fooled by the shot, but was able to get a glove on it. However, the force of the shot was too much for Hughes' left hand to take and the ball found the back of the net for a 2-1 lead.

Hughes would say to me afterward, "The thing that frustrates me is I read it. You're taught on penalty kicks it's a 50-50 chance of guessing right. And usually, you dive one way or another. I read that it was going high and I guessed right, but the ball still slipped by me."

Next up was stopper Marina Burton, a fairly accurate kicker who Paul was now counting on to equalize this  match again. She, too, went to Rivera's left, but the goalie had figured out the pattern by now of which way the Conch kickers were aiming. She dove to her left and knocked the ball away, leaving Burton dejected going back to her teammates' small circle away from the action and keeping it at 2-1.

Now it was up to Monica Ortega to finish this out. If she nailed the kick, there would be no need for Key West to go. Ortega calmly set the ball down on its mark and waited for the go-ahead from the official. She ran up to the ball pretending it was going to be a rope, but she decided to chip it and fool Hughes. The only person that was fooled was Ortega as the chip shot floated over the crossbar, keeping it at 2-1 with one kicker left.

That last kicker was sophomore Katie Gonzalez. In my short time at the Citizen, she was one of my favorite athletes there and a standout in cross-country. But she loved soccer and now, Paul was asking her to keep this match going. So Gonzalez set up the ball on its mark and took a look at Rivera and where she was heading. The official asked if she was ready. Then the official asked if Rivera was ready. When they both agreed they were ready, the whistle sounded.

I can still see the shot as clear as day. Gonzalez -- like almost every other kicker before her -- went left of Rivera. This time, though, the goalie never had to make a save. The shot sailed wide of the mark and harmlessly off the field.

And there was the still photograph in my memory forever -- in the background, the Gulliver players running toward and jumping on Rivera, while in the foreground, Katie Gonzalez is on the ground in a crouched position, hands over her eyes filled with tears after her failure to keep the match going on.

I, too, felt horrible for Katie Gonzalez.

Gulliver Prep had won the district championship. And Key West players were left in tears, no one taking it harder than the 5-foot-2 dynamo Hughes, who had stretched herself to the limits all afternoon in keeping her Conchs in the game until one penalty kick too many found the back of the net.

For Scott Paul, it was numbing in how it ended. Like a first-time jilted lover, Paul was left having to pick up the pieces of a defeat that was cruel and unfair in most soccer circles.

"Penalty kicks are no way to decide games," he said. "Penalty kicks have nothing to do with the system of soccer, they have nothing to do with the fitness of players and they have nothing to do with the team concept. I don't care if we played all night. I just think the game should have been decided on the field."

In a perfect world, Scott Paul would've been correct. But soccer never allows for that perfect world to exist. Ultimately, those who run soccer decide that an ending has to come and those dreaded penalty kicks are the way those games come to an end.

It was almost a quarter to 7 and nearly dark when I found my lady and she and I headed back to the Southernmost City. We stopped to eat at the Golden Corral in Homestead before making the trip back. For the hour we spent that night at the restaurant, we talked about a number of things, but we talked about what we had witnessed from opposite sides of the field.

"That game was so amazing," she said, me knowing that she really didn't understand all the nuances of soccer, but knew she saw a great match. "Those girls were incredible out there." Then she told me saw a teary-eyed Hughes and told her she played great that day.

I openly admit I never have been high-spirited when it came to taking the girlfriends of my life to sporting events, simply because I knew most of them really weren't into sports. But on occasion, I got lucky enough to take them somewhere that would always leave a positive impression in their minds. We ultimately got home after 11:30 p.m. and the next day, I went to work to write up what I had witnessed the day before and to lay out the paper. And I also found out that both the Key West boys and Coral Shores girls had won their district championships on that Friday, so the weekend was far from a loss at all.

But I look back on that Friday, February 4, 2000. And I think about the setback of the Key West High girls soccer team and though it was a sad ending, it only laid the foundation for what was about to become a prosperous run as head coach for Scott Paul. That 1999-2000 Key West team would ultimately finish the season at 14-8-5. By 2003, the Conchs were winning district championships and every year that Paul was head coach from 2000-2011, the team made the state tournament. In 2005, Key West made it to the regional final in Class 3A before falling to American Heritage of Plantation. And in all 14 of Paul's seasons in charge of the program, the Conchs have had at least a .500 record.

That first year, though, was a make-or-break year to say the least. Looking back on it, it helped strengthen a program that needed a direction toward great things happening.

I could have told Paul he could stop and we'd never have that conversation three days into the new millennium. And that tough loss one month later only helped guide the program to a great decade to come.

In that regard, I'm glad I was there at the start.



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