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Friday, January 27, 2017

Why he made soccer a "beautiful game"

They call soccer the "beautiful game." There are times when I have no understanding as to why they call it that. Many times, I'd cover a high school soccer match and it was a push-fest, tackle-fest, kick-the-ball-out-of-bounds-or-all-over-the-freakin'-complex-fest. Far from beautiful in my opinion.

But there are certain players I've come across in over 30 years that define this sport as the "beautiful game." I had thought in all my years of covering the sport at the Jersey Shore I had seen it from such players as Rob Johnson of Jackson Memorial or Ted Gillen of Toms River East or Kim Yankowski, Jennifer Shutt or Christie Pearce from Point Pleasant Boro High School, players who made playing the sport look awfully easy no matter what position they played.

That's when Veit Couturier came along. It was the winter of 2009-10 and the German-born young man was a foreign exchange student that year. He could have chosen a number of places to go.

He chose Crescent City, Florida. Florida was a part of the name of where he was going. Crescent City isn't anything like what you see in the tourist's guide of the state. They call Crescent City the "Bass Capital Of The World." I wasn't sure how much the young man liked to fish. Crescent City, located in southern Putnam County, is a sleepy little hollow of farm area and lakes.

Yeah ... so not in the tour book of the state highlights. But he adapted well to the small town and had an awesome host family whose kids were going to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School, so at least he knew people who could connect him with others.

Well that winter, he went out for the Raiders' boys soccer team. It was an interesting mix of players to say the least -- this 6-foot-2, hulking presence from Germany connecting with talented players from Hispanic and Mexican families. They connected in a big way, too. In their first year together, the Raiders won the District 4-3A championship, their first district title in five years, when they beat rival Keystone Heights, 1-0, at Keystone Heights High on a first-half headball goal by Couturier, one of a county-boys record 35 goals he scored that season.

Most people figured that like every other foreign exchange student, Couturier was one and done.

But a funny thing happened -- turns out this young man with the steel blue eyes and male model looks waived his right to return home and finish his schooling here. He loved Crescent City and the school that much!

And so with most of the pieces back from that championship team, it was expected that the Raiders were going to be the favorite to win the district title again. The Raiders rolled through the regular season without much issue, going 13-1-2, and Couturier setting the overall county record for goals in a season, which was previously held by Interlachen High girls player Alana Christian of 39 two years earlier.

So happens that the District 4-3A tournament was being held this winter on Crescent City's field. The Raiders aided their own cause by claiming the top seed in the tournament. They drew a bye, then got to host West Nassau High School of Callahan.

They didn't disappoint. But it was bizarre -- the Raiders won handily to move to the final with Couturier scoring four goals to give him 46 for the season. But the bizarre part was how many of these young men who played for West Nassau High, which sent a baseball player to the Major Leagues in Howie Kendrick years earlier, wanted to take pictures with Couturier afterward. I'm not kidding -- they wanted to pose in selfies or on camera chip cards with the Raiders' main player as if he was going to be next seen as a member of Germany's 2014 World Cup team. Even the coach wanted to pose with him.

Earlier in the night, Keystone Heights, who was the third seed, advanced to the final with an overtime goal against Alachua Santa Fe. For Keystone coach Trevor Waters, this was an amazing win. He didn't expect this team to be playing in the state tournament, but because of that win, they were going to be doing that regardless of how they would do in the final against Crescent City. The winner and loser of district tournament finals automatically advances to the state tournament.

Waters had a young team -- he was starting six freshmen, including goalkeeper Eric Wood, as well as two eighth-graders. The Indians managed to carve out a 10-6-5 record with that young team, though, a credit to the youth programs that bring Waters ready-made players. Everything at this point was going to be icing. But even Waters knew beforehand it was going to take a Herculean effort to stop Couturier and the rest of coach John Thomas' Raiders. This team was arguably Thomas' best in his 17 years running the program.

A win was expected in the championship game, set for Friday, January 28, 2011.

But no one expected what was to happen next.

I rolled up into the parking lot at Crescent City Junior-High just as the game had started. Usually, you can get away with doing that minutes after the kickoff. But the Raiders had already gotten the ball into Indians territory. Antonio Perez was fighting hard to keep the ball away from a pesky Indians defender. Then with a little room, he put a high ball into the box.

In what was to be the moment of the night, Couturier rose among the players as high as he could and slammed a perfect headball over a defender who was more in the way than he was trying to defend and past Wood for a 1-0 lead just 1:57 into the game.

I had barely shown my press credential and started walking toward the net when I witnessed all that happening.

From that moment, I knew Keystone Heights was in trouble. I can hear Waters' high-pitched voice yelling his players to go at it harder than they already had and the game was not even two minutes in.

It was only going to get worse. At 5:23 into the match, a Raiders player delivered a shot on net. Wood made the save, but couldn't grab the ball. Couturier did, and slipped a shot past his defender and the goalie making it 2-0.

Those first two goals were workmanlike, blue-collar, get-dirty goals. The next goal was about to be a piece of poetry. Couturier collected the ball near the midfield line, put two moves on defenders that were wondering where he went, and Wood suddenly found himself without much back-line protection. His 15-yarder never had a chance for Wood to make a play on it.

Just 7:40 into the game, it was 3-0.

For the next 13 minutes, the teams ramped it up with the Indians trying to put an intimidating and physical presence on the other nine field players the Raiders had since they couldn't do anything against Couturier. They couldn't catch him and he was just too big for them. The Indians may have had one player taller than 6-foot. The rest of them had no shot at doing anything with the Raiders' star.

Just after the water break the teams took at the midway point of the half, Michael Quintana put a pass through Keystone Heights' box that no one could get a hold of with foot or head. One player did, though -- yeah, him again. He one-timed a shot from about 10 yards that Wood couldn't reach.

Twenty minutes and 32 seconds into the match, Couturier was leading the Indians by his lonesome, 4-0.

By now, you could see the look on Waters' face. He knew it was over and that for one time, his talented team was "just happy to be there."

For the next few minutes, Couturier was trying what he could to help set up his own teammates for scores, passing up on obvious goal opportunities. Problem was that as good as his teammates were, they weren't on the same level with him. It was a little frustrating.

So at the 28:20 mark, things went back to where they were before as Ellio Robles, a junior, put a shot into the box that found Couturier. He blasted his shot by a helpless Wood and it was 5-0.

The only highlight of the night for the Indians came just as time ran down in the first half. Trey Bland, the other and forgotten top scorer in this game, took a rebound off goalie Oriel Jaramillo and poked a shot into the net for his 28th goal of the season, giving the Indians a good feeling going into halftime, but still down 5-1.

Waters did everything he could to praise his team for not quitting and getting that goal late. He was encouraging them to just keep fighting, keep battling and more good things would come. At the other end, Thomas and new assistant coach Jeff Lease were calmly talking to the players about not letting up and doing what they had done in the first half. They knew they had this game won, but the matter now turned to getting back to what they had started in the first half and finishing it out emphatically.

It was only one half, but that was the single, most amazing piece of work I've ever seen a soccer player accomplish on a field. Five goals on a minimal amount of shots taken.

You could see as the second half started the Indians doing all they could in an attempt to cut off any more dramatics from the German exchange student. Then again, he didn't really have plans to do a lot of the work by himself.

Smartly, the other Raiders stepped up with Keystone Heights doing everything they could to keep Couturier off limits from the ball. And when there was that opening, Couturier grabbed the ball at his feet and put himself in a position to score.

In this one instance, though, he got tripped up in the box. That constitutes a penalty kick. But Couturier was not called upon to do the honors -- that was left to teammate Reymundo Hernandez. He nailed his shot past Wood at the 49:55 mark to build the lead to 6-1.

For the next 13 minutes, the game remained equal as the Indians tried to build a threat against the Raiders' defense. They got their one corner kick of the night, but that got turned away. Then after a foul call against a Keystone Heights player, Jaramillo made some magic of his own. After the players cleared the goalie, Jaramillo boomed a kick toward midfield.

Couturier just happened to be there with a defender in front of him and one behind him. He won the battle for the ball, then beat that defender behind him and the one after him who tried to make a stop on him. That left Wood, who was by now seeing him in his nightmares long before he ever closed his eyes for the night. There was not much Wood could do as before he could make a move out on the ball, Couturier launched a rocket shot past him for his sixth goal of the night at the 63:47 mark to give the Raiders a 7-1 lead.

Four minutes later, Couturier finally was able to help someone else score as he provided the pass to Luis Gonzalez for a short-shot goal to make it 8-1 at the 67:18 mark.

By now, it was inevitable that the Raiders would finish out the victory via the eight-goal mercy rule. It was a matter of how quickly it would happen.

That part would take five minutes. This time, it was Perez, the young man who provided the high ball just two minutes into the match that led to Couturier's first goal, that would finish it. He placed a perfect pass in the box that Couturier collected. With an opening to take a shot, he launched a 12-yarder to Wood's left and inside the far post at 72:32.

And it was over. Crescent City 9, Keystone Heights 1, the game stopped on the mercy rule. The Raiders were dominant in every possible manner, out-shooting the Indians, 25-5. Wood would finish with nine saves to his credit, but that only glossed over the shell-shocked look he walked off the field with after the game.

The Indians players and Waters gave Couturier lots of love afterward and wished the Raiders on in their state tournament opener at home with Jacksonville Episcopal. The Indians couldn't stop the star attraction. They couldn't even contain him.

To this day, the seven-goal, one-assist night is still the greatest performance I've ever witnessed on a soccer field. To those who came down to Crescent City that night to watch this mastery of the game by one player, they came away with memories for a lifetime.

By the time the game had ended, Couturier went from 46 goals on the season to 53.

In modest critique of himself, Couturier downplayed his own performance, saying afterward, "It was not perfect, but it was still a great game. I can't say more about how great my teammates were. As I've said before, we win as a team, we lose as a team."

And that had been his credo all season. He couldn't have scored all 53 of those goals by himself and not without great teammates.

After the game, Waters was stoic, saying, "(Couturier) is an awesome player ... in a league of his own. With our young guys, we have no one who could body him up. We have a bright future, but tonight belonged to Crescent City."

This game, though, would be the last winning moment for Couturier. In the state tournament opener at home, a classy and more talented Episcopal team ran up and down, over and under and back and forth around Couturier and his teammates in a 5-0 victory.

He was in Putnam County for two years, but his smoothly dominant style of play and 88 goals scored along with back-to-back district crowns has made Couturier a legend and still the greatest player to ever grace a soccer player in county history, boy or girl.

There was one other thing that Couturier left behind as he graduated from Crescent City that late spring -- the confidence he gave to his teammates to win as well. The next two years, the Raiders would win their third and fourth straight district championships, both against regional rival Pierson Taylor, the first 1-0 in 2012 on a Robles direct kick from 25 yards away with less than four minutes left in the match, then 3-1 behind 35-goal scorer John Spence in 2013. And for the first time in program history, the Raiders won state tournament matches in those two years after Couturier graduated, beating Gainesville P.K. Yonge in 2012, then beating those vaunted Keystone Heights Indians in 2013. But both times after those wins, the Raiders fell in the regional semifinal round against those Pierson Taylor Wildcats who lost to them in district championship matches.

As for Veit Couturier, he got to play college ball in Daytona Beach at Embry-Riddle University and would play semi-pro ball. And do you remember when I mentioned above about how he has those steel-blue eyes and the male-model looks? Well, guess what he did after he graduated college?

Yeah, Veit Couturier did modelling work. Darn good, too. No wonder why any young lady who saw him play soccer in Putnam County got lock-jawed when they had to describe him.

He was too good to be true. I gained a friend for life in this young man, who I knew was bred for success in whatever he wanted to do.

In more ways than one -- and not just from that late January night in 2011 -- Veit Couturier showed why soccer really is "the beautful game."

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