East Aurora rewarded after long day of soccerEast Aurora soccer head coach Jason Rollins urges his players, including Kevin Ortega, to board their bus after a morning match at Oswego East. The Tomcats play an afternoon match at Lemont.
Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
From the back of the bus came one of those unexpected but memorable anonymous statements: “I hope I don’t get a cramp on the dance floor.”
It certainly wasn’t the usual concern for a high school boys soccer squad returning home with a tournament plaque, but that was the case Saturday night as the East Aurora school bus rolled home.
The Tomcats had literally and figuratively worked “overtime” on the field — playing a morning and early evening doubleheader as a postseason tune-up — and were begging the bus driver to step on it since the Homecoming dance would most likely be half over by the time they returned home.
Unlike weekend mornings, the East Aurora hallway was virtually silent and some of the players slumped against the lockers were, at best, just resting their eyes since it was 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Quite a few yawns escaped by the time the day’s first bus trip began at 9:05 as the Tomcats made the trek to Oswego East. Wake-up call No. 1 came just 4:41 into the contest as the Wolves took a 1-0 lead.
Despite coach Jason Rollins’ imploring for focus, it was as if the snooze button had been hit since the 7:49 time point produced a second Oswego East goal. In 10 of their previous 15 contests East Aurora hadn’t yielded two goals period, let alone two in the first eight minutes. The visitors managed to cut the deficit in half and Rollins’ halftime “pep” talk paid off in an equalizer just 4:50 into the second half followed two minutes later by a go-ahead goal.
As was the case in the opening 40 minutes, the contrast at midfield was often obvious with anywhere from 4-8 Tomcats waiting to enter the match alongside one Oswego East sub. The host Wolves, who used four reserves for the whole match, converted a penalty kick on EA goalie Osvaldo Mata just past the midpoint of the second half before East Aurora scoring leader Abraham Kanneh put his side back on top with an 18-yard rocket.
Oswego East (10-3-3) scored with 3:35 left in regulation for a deadlock and what no other opponent has managed to do against the Tomcats: score four goals. Not entirely unacceptable considering the Wolves account for the only “blemish” on No. 1-ranked Naperville North’s 14-0-1 season.
“Other than allowing four goals we played some good soccer,” Rollins said. “We limited them to five or six shots which, when you take away the PK and a couple really good tries, I can’t fault the defense too much. The whole bench got to play for half a game. If we didn’t have another game I might not have done that. But how fresh you can stay is important in the postseason, so our bench knows they’ll be called upon and they need to be ready.”
The bus was back at Tomcat Lane exactly three hours after having departed, so it was time to recharge and refresh. Rollins’ early morning shopping meant fresh rolls for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a plethora of apples, oranges, bananas — no sweets — bottled water and a variety of CapriSun drinks. Helping oversee everything and “herd the ‘Cats” with one-on-one pep talks, coaching tips or humor throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening was varsity assistant coach Sergio Rodriguez.
Making the down time flow by were video highlights from previous Tomcat matches, a few “FIFA World Cup” videogame showdowns, a tape of Manchester United’s “1,001 Best Goals,” and the usual teammate ribbing — plus chatter about school, girls, classmates, the next match and the dance.
Prior to re-boarding, some of the players opted for “resting” eyelids or earplugs pumping in pregame hip-hop favorites, predominantly Drake, some Kanye West.
Just after 3:30 p.m., a different driver and a seemingly half-empty bus now minus Nathan Perry’s junior varsity unit, which had also battled Oswego East to a 2-2 draw, was rolling to Lemont. Despite the bus-rattling resurfacing on 75th Street, the majority of players managed to fall sound asleep en route.
The driver’s paperwork simply indicated Lemont High School, which is where Matt Shirk, who oversees East Aurora’s unbeaten freshman team, came to the rescue with his iPhone. After checking with fellow assistant Perry for specifics and locking in the coordinates on his GPS for the Lemont Complex definitely not next to the high school, he helped the driver get there for just under 30 minutes of warmup. But that was prior to Rollins’ stroll down the aisle woke everyone at Lemont’s city imit.
Having grown up near the complex, Perry’s ties include a wife who teaches at Lemont which has produced friendships for the East Aurora assistant AD with the Indians’ soccer staff. That meant some subtle joking and bragging rights were on the line when Rollins and LHS counterpart Rick Prangen had originally agreed to a late meeting as a possible tuneup for the post season.
With both teams in opposite groups for the Lemont Cup which originally began on August 27, neither coach had considered the October meeting being a possible rematch. Despite both teams working their way to the top of their respective pools, the original championship meeting was erased by rain and lightning. That led to the coaches agreeing to give the contest more meaning by putting the tourney plaque on the line.
As befitting any championship match, both teams traded near-goals and a mix of lucky or great saves by goalkeepers and defenders alike. When 80 minutes of regulation play didn’t break a 0-0 deadlock, two 10-minute “golden goal” sessions followed without a resolution, the defensive battle gave way to a PK Shootout.
The dance back at East was 15 minutes underway when the Tomcats won the coin flip in order to opt to shoot second. Both teams converted their first and third tries while the keepers blocked second attempts. Already facing his fifth PK for the day, East’s Mata dove to his left and his one-hand tip save for round four gave the visitors an advantage. Not thinking about the dazzling purple shirt and dress slacks hanging in coach Rollins’ office, Kanneh became the second Tomcat to hit the net inside the left post.
After Lemont’s hopes continued with a successful fifth attempt, David Reynoso scored to his right and that brought all the Tomcats racing onto the field for some not particularly rhythmic dancing around.
The added bonus was that the homecoming dance organizers, assuming the team would be arriving late, promised free admission if they came home with a victory and refunds for those who had purchased tickets.
“I’ve got a refund coming,” Kanneh said with a grin. “So let’s get this bus going.”
When asked if he’d let his date know of the victory, the junior scoring leader said, “She just wanted to know when the team would be back.”
A teammate suggested that was just so she could know when to stop dancing with other guys.
“Nah, she’s waiting for me,” Kanneh insisted.
The bus was surprisingly suddenly silent 15 minutes later prompting coach Shirk to ask “Hey, did you guys win or lose?”
The chorus of “We won” prompted another player to suggest the team enter the dance en masse with the plaque held high. Someone else said he was willing to do that, but right after that, he’d be heading home and going to bed.
“Obviously I’m really proud of our goalie, but the whole team played well even though it was pretty obvious our legs were heavy at the end,” Rollins said. “As long a day as it was, this was a great experience for us in terms of the post-season. We had consecutive tests against good teams; we had the pressure of a shootout. It all helps get us into a playoff mindset.”
Having started the day with his three daughters pleading with him to skip soccer for the day, Rollins had to remain in coaching mode as the bus pulled into the parking lot at 8:30 p.m: “OK, let’s make sure we get this bus cleaned, pick up everything and make sure you don’t leave anything behind. Let’s get the coolers and everything else put away,” the coach said. “And then, enjoy your dance.”