The ball sailed over the cross bar, and the Lumberjacks flooded onto the field in celebration. Once again, soccer was fun. As it should be.
Sean McManus scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the 10th round of a shoot out, as No.9 North Tonawanda beat No.8 Hutch-Tech, 2-1, in their Section VI Class A-1 prequarter final game that was played at All-High Stadium on Monday afternoon. The victory earns the Lumberjacks a trip to Wednesday’s quarterfinals where they will play at top-seeded Grand Island. Even though they know taking on the No.1 ranked Vikings on the road will be a huge challenge, on this afternoon, the Jacks were going to take a moment to savor every second of this victory.
“It felt amazing, honestly,” McManus said minutes after the game ended. “I felt incredibly nervous, as (the shot) almost missed.”
Playing to a 1-1 tie through regulation and two 15-minute overtimes, the Jacks and Engineers were also deadlocked at three goals apiece after the first round of five shooters. Which meant each team had to pick another five shooters to step up and shoot.
Vinny Chiodo, Mason Kelly, Tyler MacNeil and Matt Grig all scored for NT in that second wave before McManus drove home the goal that touched off the celebration.
“They’re learning that there’s rewards. If you work hard, there’s rewards, but you have to go out there and give that 100% in order to do that,” Sabo said, as he explained the culture change he’s tried to bring.
“They’re also learning that if I mess up, if I don’t follow the rules of the team, I could lose my spot.”
Much more than simply advancing to the next round of sectionals, this win was a reward for the Jacks after weathering one of their toughest seasons and finding a way to come out closer than they ever imagined they could.
A few weeks back hazing allegations arose after one player damaged another player’s personal soccer ball after practice. It was a difficult time for the program and the school as word of the incident quickly spread on the news and social media. In the wake of the incident the previous coach stepped down and was replaced by Steven Sabo, who retired at the end of last season after spending 17 years as the girls varsity coach. Since taking over on Sept.29 Sabo, a former Lumberjack varsity soccer player himself, has done his best to not only bring structure and discipline to the program, but also a sense of pride and definition of what it means to wear NT colors on the soccer field.
On Oct.4, the Lumberjacks helped run a practice session with kids from Sabo’s U-10 program. The theme was obvious: the older boys’ giving back to the community by sharing their knowledge of soccer with the younger kids. But the real payoff for the varsity boys came when they saw the pure joy in the faces of the little kids. It helped make the game fun for them again and reminded the Jacks why they got into soccer in the first place.
“Definitely,” McManus said. “It helped a ton.”
A few weeks later on Senior Night, Sabo had alumni visit with the team and tell the players about the history of success NT soccer has experienced. Hearing stories of the Lumberjacks’ glory days filled the current kids with a sense of pride as they realized they were all part of something much bigger than they even realized.
Sabo also brought with him the Hard Hat award. A tradition of having teammates voting on who the Player of the Game should be and awarding them a hard hat to keep until the next game.
“He definitely brought in more of a traditional feel of NT soccer and reminded us of who were are,” said senior co-captain Griffin Carson, who scored the Jacks goal in regulation.
“Things like the hard hat. He’s a great motivator. He’s really gotten the boys to remember you’ve got to have faith in yourself, your skill and (team) will do the rest. His experience and knowledge of the game is great and it’s helped move the team along to where we are.”
The Jacks have also learned a far greater lesson over these last few weeks. One that transcends the basics of the game of soccer. They were reminded that everyone makes mistakes, but we are not defined by the mistakes we make. We are defined by what we learn from them and how we move forward.
“That’s the thing. They don’t realize that NT soccer used to have undefeated seasons,” said Sabo.
“We played for sectional championships. We played in the state tournaments. When we had Kevin O’Neil, some of our alumni, come out and talk to them about that the (kids) were ‘you were undefeated?’ Yeah, we never had a losing season. If we had a losing season we knew we were not going to make the team next season and he (coach) would find different kids to go out and work. So they saw that when the alumni was there. They also saw it when they practiced with the youth development group. So they made a connection to where they were. They saw the fun that soccer was and they saw where they should be going with the alumni.”
Colin Archibald, Jaxin Romanow and Dylan Folger all scored in the opening round of PK’s, while Zach Archibald got the win in net.
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