A bittersweet ending for Central seniors
Their season ended prematurely, but the Bears gained respect by cleaning up their play and rebounding from injuries.
By DAVID MURPHY
Published January 27, 2006
The purple lights at Gator Stadium were still glowing and the scoreboard in the south end zone was still showing a 2-0 defeat as 17 members of the Central boys soccer team lined up for one last run across the field.
In front of them, beyond the empty stands and the pack of 20 or so Central parents who stood cheering by a chain-link fence, lay a diverse set of futures, one that will scatter a team that has played together the past four years in a multitude of directions: Brandon Vitola to the University of Florida, where he will study political science; Austin Grey to a small college, where he likely will play soccer and golf; Nick Sarabalis to wherever he lands, perhaps at South Carolina-Aiken, where he has a scholarship offer.
But for one last moment, a Central team that features nine seniors and a whole lot of heart, jogged across the width of the field and at the far sideline gathered in a tearful pack to jump up and down in the chilly night air one last time.
"It's rough," said Vitola, the senior midfielder, after the Bears fell to Land O'Lakes in the Class 5A, District 7 semifinals Wednesday night. "I'm never going to play high school soccer again."
No doubt, they entered the game as the underdog. Land O'Lakes was a region finalist last year and lost just once in the district this season. And with the Gators holding senior night ceremonies before the game, even fate wasn't on Central's side.
In the week leading up to the district tournament, a couple of Bears said they would need to play a perfect game to knock off the Gators. And, in the end, they failed to reach that barometer.
Central had valid scoring opportunities on several occasions, but each time, for a variety of reasons - an offsides, a pass just inches off, a stopped shot - they fell through.
In the final two minutes of the first half, Land O'Lakes knocked a header off of a free kick into the left corner of the net, seizing a 1-0 lead. Central burst out of the locker room firing, but by the time the clock had reached its waning seconds, the Bears were down 2-0, and reality was setting in.
"There was a lot of frustration, a lot of emotion," Vitola said. "It kind of overflowed onto the field."
But after the game, as Sarabalis exchanged hugs with his teammates and Grey stood in silent contemplation, all was not lost. A team that entered this season with the reputation as a pack of miscreants ended it with Central principal Dennis McGeehan cheering them on the sidelines.
Bears coach Hank Deslaurier pointed out his team did not get one red card this season, an accomplishment that before the year would have signaled the onset of the end times.
Beset by injuries early in the season, Central rallied to win eight of its final nine games, including a 3-0 knockout of Ridgewood in the district quarterfinals.
"I can't describe it," said Sarabalis, who will visit USC-Aiken next week. "The way we played the back half of the season, I wish we could keep going."
But they can't, and so they will head into club seasons, and indoor seasons, and finals, and graduations and, finally, whatever it is that lies in the great beyond.
And Kyle Staton and Jacob Grey and Jesse Diaz and Josh Lloyd and Justin Vitalone and Charlie Richardson and Austin Grey and Sarabalis and Vitola and their underclassmen teammates returned from their final run, then gathered their things and gathered together, shuffling toward a bus that sat idling in the parking lot for one last ride home.
[Last modified January 27, 2006, 01:21:16]
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