Woog’s World: There is still a purity in high school sports
In the second round of the state high school soccer tournament, the odds were stacked against the Staples boys team.
For over a decade, the upstaters have been the powerhouse in Connecticut soccer. They were two-time defending state champions and won it five of the last six years. They had not let up a goal in the state tournament since 2016.
The Glastonbury fans were raucous, the temperature early last week was below 30 degrees, and the Wreckers faced all that without their regular goalkeeper. He’d received a red card in the previous match for a deliberate hand ball outside the penalty area to prevent a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Staples had to play a man down for 41 minutes in that game against Wilbur Cross (they gutted out a 3-0 win). The keeper had to sit out the next match in Glastonbury, too.
The odds got worse when, just 14 minutes after kickoff, the Wreckers found themselves down 2-0. It looked like the roof might cave in.
Instead, the Staples players righted themselves. They looked each other in the eye, lifted each other’s hearts and went to work.
A goal just before halftime cut the margin 2-1. Glastonbury owned some of the second half, but still the Wreckers battled. Suddenly, seven minutes from elimination, they scored. Just as suddenly three minutes later, they struck again.
Miraculously, against all odds, Staples had turned a certain defeat into an astonishing victory. The news rocketed around the Connecticut sports world.
But the Wreckers were not done. Forty-eight hours later, in the state quarterfinals, they headed to Trumbull.
The Eagles are FCIAC (league) champions. They’d eliminated Staples in the FCIAC semifinals; earlier in the year, the Wreckers battled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie 2-2. A large crowd anticipated an epic battle, and they got it.
Trumbull drew first blood early in the second half. Once again, the blue-and-whites fought back. Once again, they got the tying goal. Once again it came very late — this time, with less than six minutes to play.
After 20 scoreless minutes of overtime, they headed to penalty kicks. After a true team effort, this is an odd way to determine a winner. Each team sends five shooters. From just 12 yards out, they try to beat the goalkeeper.
Though the goal is huge — 24 yards wide, 8 yards high — and the shooter is expected to score, it’s harder than it looks. Pressure is enormous, and keepers can make saves.
Four Staples kickers scored; the Trumbull goalie saved one. All five Eagles shot true and just like that, Staples’ season was over.
Players dropped to the ground. Many sobbed.
In a show of sportsmanship, several Trumbull players interrupted their joyful celebration. They walked over to the Wreckers, said a few kind words and embraced them.
It was a brutal end to the season, but it wasn’t the first time it’s happened to a Staples soccer team.
I’ve been there before. Since 2003, I’ve been head coach of the program. With a storied 61-year history, it has a legacy to live up to. Twelve times, Wrecker teams have finished the season with a victory as state champs. Forty-nine other times, the final game of the fall was a loss.
That’s a reality of sports. Unless you’re exceptionally good and a bit lucky, odds are astronomical that you’ll lose your last game. Only one team wins a title. All the rest fall by the wayside.
Our team’s fall felt harder than most. Our guys — two dozen seniors, juniors and sophomores — had given everything they had. They’d earned the respect of the entire state with their skill, passion, poise, pride, power, tenacity and style.
They’d done something few teenagers — or anyone of any age, really — does these days: They’d set a lofty goal. They’d committed everything they had to it. They’d trained, sacrificed, spent hours each day together, worked through issues, overcome obstacles, sweated, lifted each other up. They were serious and mature. They laughed a lot too.
In the end, they cried together. They held each other tightly, looked each other in the eyes and, through tears, told each other how much they loved them.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with professional and college sports. From too much money to misplaced values, there are many reasons to turn away.
But there is still a purity in high school sports. It’s more than a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours each day.
There are life lessons to be learned. This year’s Staples boys soccer team learned them well. They will carry those lessons with them for the rest of their lives.
The Staples Wreckers are my players, sure. But they are something more. They are also my heroes.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.