By almost 9 p.m. on Wednesday, January 19, 2011, the balloon's air had been blown out completely. And my one long-term lasting memory of that night at Interlachen High School will be of star soccer midfielder/forward Jacqueline Fraga belly down on the ground, fists pounding at the turf in tears.
This should have been her time. It should have been Interlachen's time, really.
But it wasn't.
When the 2010-11 girls soccer season began in early November for Interlachen's Rams, there was a lot expected of the team. They had strong leadership with numerous seniors on the club, starting in the back with two standout defenders in Rebecca Beatty and Jasmine Beamon. They had a dynamite third-year starting goalkeeper in junior Terri Tompson, who was getting stronger with each year.
But the centerpiece of this club were the two seniors who had won the previous three Palatka Daily News Girls Soccer Player of the Year honors in forward Alana Christian, the recipient of the honor in her freshman and sophomore years and Fraga, who was the winner of the honor her junior year.
Interlachen was 10-6-5 during the season, but most of the losses were to the three teams that finished with a better district record than the Rams did -- Bishop Snyder of Jacksonville, perennial rival Keystone Heights and surprising West Nassau of Callahan. To that point, the season for the Rams and seventh-year coach Mike Stevens had been a disappointment. They needed to turn it around and the district tournament would be the starting point.
That district tournament was to be held this season at Interlachen High, so for the seniors, the last hurrah would be in front of friends and family. And for as talented as this Rams team had been over the years, there was one glaring oversight on their resumes.
No, it wasn't a state tournament berth. It was the fact the team didn't even win a single game in the previous three district tournaments. Even when the Rams were a No. 2 seed in 2009, they lost to Pierson Taylor. I still have visions of Stevens running as fast as he can to get a ball that had gone out of bounds to give to his player throwing it in as time was running out on what would be a 2-1 loss at Keystone Heights High that year.
Now the Rams had to put up or shut up in this tournament. Christian, the third 100-goal scorer I ever covered in high school girls soccer after legendary Point Pleasant Boro High standouts Kim Yankowski and Christie Pearce, had scored 26 goals that season while teams were double-teaming her. That was freeing things up for Fraga, who led the team with 27 goals. Though polar opposites of one another, the outgoing and outspoken Fraga and the quiet and shy Christian knew how to work with one another effectively.
Most importantly, they needed each other for this tournament for if the Rams had not gotten to the state tournament for the first time since their only trip in 2006, the season was a failure in some ways.
So on Tuesday, January 18, 2011, the Rams opened play up on a crisp, cool evening against sixth-seeded and Putnam County rival Crescent City. Unfortunately, the Rams were going to play this game without Christian, who had been hampered for the better part of two weeks with a hamstring injury. That's just something you can't take a chance on running up and down and turning and twisting on soccer fields.
Fraga, though, came to the rescue. She scored both goals the Rams put in and the defense did the rest in a 2-0 victory, the first for the program in the postseason since beating Pierson Taylor, 2-1, in the 2006 district semifinals to advance to their first state tournament berth.
That 400-pound gorilla finally stopped jumping up and down these girls' backs. But one was still having a good ol' time jumping up and down -- the one that had them avoiding the state tournament the last three years. But that was not going to be easy for Bishop Snyder's Cardinals were going to be a formidable foe as the top seed of the tournament.
The Cardinals had a nice team going into Wednesday's semifinal, sporting a 14-2 record. They didn't have a star player defensively and in the midfield, but they had one true leader up front in Taylor Savage, who had scored more than 40 goals for her team.
The winner was going to the state tournament with an automatic berth and would play in the district final on Friday night against the Keystone Heights-West Nassau winner on the same Interlachen turf.
This Wednesday night was a tense one and was a night in the low 60s temperature-wise, making for comfortable weather. I can still see the focus on Fraga's face as she prepped for what would be the biggest game of her life. Stevens had a decision to make with Christian. He felt that the extra day of rest was worth it and inserted her into the lineup.
But from the get-go, you can see her mobility was going to be limited to staying within the first one-third of the soccer field, patiently waiting for the ball to come her way and fighting for all the loose balls within her area without straying too far. This wasn't sitting all that well for Fraga, who herself was fighting a slight fracture in her foot but you wouldn't have known that the way she was going full throttle.
From the start, you can tell that the Cardinals as a team were much, much better than the Rams and you could see why they were the top seed of the tournament. They were more aggressive to the ball and made things look much easier than the scrappy Rams, who in their own right were talented.
And that's where the intensity level was ratcheted up another notch. What the Rams did was take a more physical approach against the Cardinals -- not the kind of play that would knock bodies to the ground, but at least some bumpin' that would get their opponent's attention.
However, 10 minutes into the match and already having a good amount of the play in Interlachen's end, Bishop Snyder struck as Victoria Verveille pushed a ball forward toward the goal. Tompson made the split-second decision to try to meet the ball before Savage did.
She came out second best in that battle. Savage got her foot on the ball and poke-kicked the ball into the net for the 1-0 lead.
Stevens did not get down. He continued to encourage his girls to stay strong in this one. There was still 70 minutes left and he was under the impression Bishop Snyder wasn't going to blow his team off the field. His players felt that way, too. So did the Rams fans.
So did I. The problem was the Cardinals just weren't allowing the Rams to get anything going on offense. They continued to peck away at the Rams' defense. But this was working to one player's advantage.
Alana Christian. Because she was relegated to nothing more than an offensive player, she did not have to come back and play much defense. And because Snyder had played the Rams twice during the season, it was a good idea to have someone stay with her throughout the game. Heck, the two of them could have gotten to know one another throughout the entire game with long conversations. That's how close they were to one another.
With only a few minutes left in the first half, the Rams finally broke out and had a chance. Fraga delivered the shot. It went wide left of the mark. But for the first time in a while, the field was spread out instead of being in one section of play. The Rams were going to continue to threaten and push the issue in these last moments before halftime. If you were a Rams fan, you felt awfully good about what was going on.
The Rams got the ball to Christian and she slipped by her defenders to dribble in on the net. Her shot was deflected by a Snyder player. But right there to scoop up the rebound was a freshman named Taryn Davis, who was able to capture the ball on the other side and persuade defenders and goalie Sarah Fisher to come out at her. She simply put a pass right back to Christian, who had the wide-open net to score her 27th goal of the season and tie it at 1-1 with 31 seconds left before the break.
Interlachen players were excited. Fans were excited. Stevens was elated. His team had decided to go on a much more defensive approach and took advantage of the opportunities it did have to tie it at the break.
In my mind, I could see Interlachen stunning this Bishop Snyder team. But I stopped myself because I was expecting more of the same in the second half. And that's exactly what happened at the start of the second half as the Cardinals put pressure on the Rams' defense again. This time, Verveille took a shot that Tompson seemed to have cut off the angle when the ball was booted. By mere luck, though, the ball just found the inside of the goal and with 32:37 left in the game, the Cardinals had re-taken the lead at 2-1.
Still, there was plenty of time left. And as strange as it sounded, I felt as if Interlachen was in control of things even if they would be out-shot in this game, 26-5, and the bulk of this battle was taking place in Interlachen's end. It would take one "jail break" and the game would be tied up. It just needed a moment and a place to happen.
Less than four minutes after Verveille's goal, that opportunity came. The taller Christian won a headball battle and was able to run onto the ball and make a move toward the goal when she was tripped up by a Snyder defender just outside the 18-yard box. Because the call came outside the box, it meant no penalty kick. However, the Rams had a direct kick to take from the 25 just to the right side of the goal.
And the Rams had the right person to take this kick. The night before against Crescent City, Fraga delivered a direct kick goal in the 2-0 win. Now she was about to deliver another memorable long-distance kick. She booted the ball over the makeshift wall three Snyder defenders built. It kept rising and rising as it approached Fisher.
Fisher had no chance of even getting a finger on the ball. It cleared just underneath the crossbar and into the net.
Voila! The game was tied again at 2-2 because Fraga, who was about to become our paper's player of the year for the second straight year, had delivered her 30th goal of the season.
Now it was any one's game with just under 29 minutes to go. And the intensity went up another level as bodies now were starting to fly. But to the officials' credit, they allowed both teams to play. Still, though, the Cardinals had the better of the play in the Rams' end. They put up numerous shots against Tompson, but the shots went wide of the mark or were knocked aside by the keeper.
As it crept under four minutes to go, I had the feeling that I was going to be seeing sudden-death overtime sessions on the field, the possibility of a golden goal or a shootout, which I was favoring Tompson over Fisher. Felt the same way with three minutes to go ... then again when it got to two minutes to play.
The clock on the Interlachen High scoreboard was stopped at two minutes. The time would be kept on the field from this point. Snyder made one last push and a midfielder put a ball into the Rams' box. There was a scramble for the ball. There was nothing out of the ordinary from what I had seen in the previous 78 minutes. Both teams were fighting for the ball. It had skipped to Tompson, who was about to cover up and clear it.
That's when I heard a whistle. Play was stopped.
Enter the head official of this battle, who had done a superb job in controlling the game. Now he was about to make a decision that would decide both teams' fates.
He called the Rams for something called "handling." Was it holding? No explanation was made. Well, who was it? No explanation of who was the culprit. Can you point out where it happened? Not really.
These were some of the questions Stevens and Rams players had at that particular moment. And because the foul was called inside the Rams' box, that constituted a penalty kick. Savage was called upon to make the kick against Tompson. Still looking stunned over the call she had nothing to do with, Tompson had to re-focus on making the save against Savage, all the bit as surprised as everyone else that she was about to deliver the go-ahead goal.
The whistle sounded. Savage approached her kick. She nailed her shot past Tompson's right side to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead. Tompson was helpless. So were the Rams, who now had 91 seconds to make one last run.
Rams players did everything they could to get the ball to the feet of either Christian or Fraga. If Davis was open, they tried to get it to her. But each threat was met by a Cardinals' defender, who was getting the job done in lockdown mode.
And just as this head official sounded the whistle, the game was over. A number of Interlachen players started screaming in anger over what had just happened moments earlier. Some walked away visibly shaken and crying. And others started to go after the official and the officiating crew who had just taken this hard-fought game away from them.
The officiating crew was smart. Mere moments after the game ended, they made their obligatory handshakes with the coaches and got out of IHS as fast as they could before Rams fans started chasing them through the parking lot.
They were screwed. Unequivocally screwed. To this day, no one knows who committed the "foul" or "hold" or "handle" for that matter that caused the penalty kick. And why make that call now when the physical nature of the game was pronounced throughout. It's a pretty lousy time to start giving out penalty kicks when the game has been like this throughout.
I never want to believe that the officials just wanted to give Snyder the penalty kick because they wanted to get the heck out of there and avoid officiating the overtime sessions. But that phantom call has left a big hole for me for these last three years.
It also left a hole for Fraga, who was there on the ground pounding her fists in tears because her senior season was over without really an explanation. It was all she was left to do because the thought of chasing the officials down to the parking lot was gone by the time that trio got in their cars and left Thompson-Baker Field.
Snyder players were laughing and having a good time on the other end of the field, mobbing each other because they had just gotten away with virtual murder in picking up a state tournament berth.
That same berth that may have had Interlachen's name all over it except for the call that led to the penalty kick that kept the Rams from the state tourney. The Rams have still not made it back to the state tournament since 2006.
Fraga and Christian were inconsolable. They didn't want their careers to end this way. Beatty, meanwhile, was hotter than a jalapeno pepper.
"We're playing soccer ... we're not playing golf, we're not playing tennis," she adamantly began, the vitriol seeping through her words. "(The official) told me there was 'handling' in the box and that someone grabbed a jersey. I asked him, 'Who was it?' and he did not say. We put everything into this and to have it end this way was wrong."
The usually even-keel Stevens wasn't having none of the officials' explanations of what happened near the end of the game either.
"I can live with getting it to overtime, play 10 and 10 minute (periods) and if (Snyder) scores a golden goal to win it, then that's it," he said. "But this was unnecessary. Obviously, we are good enough to push one of the best teams in Jacksonville around to where they need the 12th man (the official)."
And with the outcome, I had just witnessed the second-worst call in my long career in covering sports. Ironically, the two worst calls I've ever witnessed happened within a few 100 feet of each other and within almost three month's time. On October 28, 2010 in the Interlachen High gymnasium, I watched Crescent City's Kayshia Brady deliver an emphatic spike -- only to have it overturned by an official as a "carry," which I've seen the replay dozens and dozens of times since showing it wasn't even close to a carry -- in the critical fifth set that gave Keystone Heights the deciding point and district volleyball tournament semifinal win that sent the Indians to the state tournament and sent the Raiders home for the season.
But Brady and most of her teammates were coming back from that debacle in 2011. Fraga, Christian, Beatty and the other seniors weren't coming back. It was a travesty in how it ended.
Before I left the field that night, I politely asked all-around good guy and Interlachen High athletic director Ron Whitehurst if he knew who the officials were.
"No. But I can get the names on the card up in the press box."
"Could you please do that?"
He was still upset at what happened, too, and that two of the biggest officiating screwings had taken place at his complex in a short amount of time. He got the names for me a few minutes later and I jotted down the officiating crew and left to head back to the office to write this tale of wronged woe against the IHS Rams girls soccer team.
Christian never pursued a college soccer career even though she had the potential to play at the next level. I never truly knew why she didn't go off to college. Fraga, though, did. But her one year of soccer experience at Warner University in Polk County, Florida, was not good and what she was hoping for. She left after that freshman year.
Bishop Snyder ultimately beat Keystone Heights in the district tournament final and won a first-round state match before falling to another Jacksonville-based school, The Bolles School, in the regional semifinal.
Maybe the Rams don't get as far as Snyder does. But they would have been there playing in the tournament. And it would have at least let those seniors go away with some kind of glory in the end.
Unfortunately, one official took that opportunity away on a call that to this day no one knows where the foul was committed.
Such a sad shame.