By Craig Flagg
AURORA, Colo. — The long journey to the summit was a challenging one, but for Tennessee SC 2003, the view from the top proved to be worth every bump, bruise and blister.
That was the consensus among players and coaches on Saturday after the Midstate team, which features more than a dozen 15-year-olds from the immediate area, became the first boys soccer team from Tennessee to win a national title with its 1-0 victory over SAC Showcase Premier out of Maryland.
Parents, who had taken their teens to countless practices plus a series of elimination tournaments leading up to the inaugural Elite National Premier League championship, poured onto the field to soak up the victory with their sons under the blistering sun at Aurora Sports Park. As sweat-soaked players hugged one another and tried to grasp what they’d just accomplished, Tennessee SC head coach Stuart Brown offered his perspective.
“For this group, we’ve been so close, we’ve done so many other things, had so many other challenges. I didn’t know if it would ever come, but it was well-deserved,’’ he said. “They put the work in and it’s been a long 48 months, and this is the reward.”
Players patiently waited for a brief and impromptu postgame interview to conclude before thanking their head coach for his efforts in guiding the team to the title by dousing him with water left over from gallon jugs.
“This is a great way for me to finish with this group,” Brown said. “They’re going to move on to a great coach and they’ve got a huge career ahead of them, but, yes, they’ve worked so hard. They deserve it — and it’s a great moment for the club.
The Tennessee team looked strong from the outset and continuously had Maryland on its heels. And at the 10-minute mark, Tennessee had its first real opportunity as center forward Rasheed Sarieh of Montgomery Bell Academy lined up for a penalty kick.
But Maryland keeper Daniel Miranda guessed correctly and was able to swat away Sarieh’s attempt and then immediately followed the save by somehow blocking a rebound shot while stretched out on the ground.
The first half closed without a goal, allowing Maryland to exhale and leaving Tennessee wondering what it might take to score against the East Coast powerhouse.
The answer came not far into second-half action with yet another penalty-kick opportunity. This time it was Shewit Worton who would get the chance, and his kick high and to the right of Miranda easily found the back of the net.
“We had an opportunity in the first half, obviously, to go up with a goal on the PK (that was blocked), and that’s always tough to rebound,” Brown said. “You miss a PK, (and you wonder) how does your attitude and things go from there?”
Obviously, he was thrilled with the answer.
The championship was one of four ENPL national titles decided on the day, along with the 14U, 16U and 17U titles. They marked the end of the first year of a collaboration between two major clubs — the Elite Clubs National League and US Club Soccer. In all but the 17U championship game, the difference was just a single goal.
“We had to fight until the whistle blowed,” said Tennessee goalkeeper Adan Gonzalez. “Being up is always good, but it’s just one goal, so anything can happen.”
Sarieh, who was a dominating force throughout the game, gave Gonzales props for his outstanding play.
“It was definitely a heck of a game,” he said. “Really a lot of nerves at the end. And a great save from Adan. Saved my butt, especially since I missed that penalty kick. So much work this season, it finally paid off.”
Before he and his teammates made their way to the trophy presentation area, Tennessee’s Trevor Stein reflected on the victory.
“I don’t think that it’s totally sunk in yet that we’re national champs, but it will eventually,” he said. “Once we scored that goal, we knew we had to get everything out. The other team had a great counter-attack. They were just so fast up top and we just had to keep them contained.”
Assistant coach Dean Blain, who is the ECNL director for the Tennessee Soccer Club, appeared as thrilled as anyone immediately after the game.
“The amount of work that they put in, the amount of effort, the amount of sacrifice that the families and the kids have done … to see them win, yeah, it felt like Christmas Day, one of those surprise presents, very, very nice.”
Blain added, “That was a very good team out of Maryland, and to deal with what they threw at us was impressive from the boys’ point of view.”
Nolan Colladay, who after the game had a pair of “lucky cleats” from his younger years dangling from across his neck, said of the game, “Everything just came together from the past three years we’ve been together. There was a lot of passion to fight it out.”
Teammate Eli Kampine added, “It’s been an honor and pleasure playing. We fell short these last couple of years in different competitions, but it feels good on our last game with Coach Stuart to finally get the win and pick up the hardware.”
Definitely worth all the bumps, bruises and blisters.