Championship Memories

26 11 2008

It has been a good six weeks since we won the championship, and it already is starting to fall away, into the memory bank.  Working for a sports team, you always have only a limited amount of time to savor the moment you are presently in.  Before long, it’s back to moving onward and upward.  Planning for the ’09 season beckons and with my focus on that, it seems our playoff run is creeping further and further away.

So maybe now is a good time to reflect on that playoff run, and in particular what I remember most.  Now that some time has passed, there are only two memories that seem to stick out in my mind.  I’ll share the other one next week, but here’s the first one:

It seems every championship team needs to cling onto something to reach the level required to win a title.  This seems intuitive: teams are required to play at a high level for six months or more.  When the playoffs arrive, injuries are piling up, travel is taking its toll and a weight of expectations sit upon every players’ shoulders.  Ultimately, teams that succeed are teams that can find that extra motivation to carry them to another level.  Whether it’s the ‘nobody believes in us’ underdog mentality or the ‘let’s win this for person x’ honor pledge or the ‘we were wronged’ revenge plot, it all leads inevitably to the same ending.

In 2006, the ‘Caps rallied around Eddie Sebrango to win the championship game.  You may be thinking ‘wait, wasn’t Eddie suspended for that match?’  He was, but his influence on the team was far greater than he could have exerted on the pitch.  Eddie’s Obi-wan Kenobi moment, if you will.  His goal against Montreal was the stuff of legend.  A guy who felt wronged by the organization and fled to its rival scores the winner in extra time on that same pitch he once called home.  Overcome with emotion, he whipped his shirt off with joy, and of course had to sit out the final match in suspension.

Most people would feel ashamed and distraught over such an error in judgment.  But Eddie took it upon himself to step up in the week leading up to the match.  He turned into Eddie Sebrango: Player-Coach.  By the end of the week, the team knew they had to win this match for Eddie.  And boy did they ever – a 3-0 defeat to Rochester in their own stadium and our first USL-1 title.

This past season, Jay Nolly became a revelation.  At the start of the season, we didn’t quite know what we had in him.  As he and Djekanovic battled for the starting goalkeeper spot, it seemed inevitable a time-split was in the cards.  When Serge started the first couple games, it appeared Jay would be relegated to backup duty.  But Jay got better as the season progressed and his command of the box and vocal leadership on the pitch was very evident.  By season’s end, he was not only our number one keeper but quickly becoming one of the league’s best as well.

That’s why that fateful moment during the first leg in Montreal was so gut-wrenching.  When Jay received a straight red card (and subsequent one game suspension) for an altercation with Antonio Ribeiro, the entire Whitecaps fanbase felt their hearst plunge into their stomach.  We now had to weather the storm from a momentum-gaining Impact squad, with young Tyler Baldock as our savior between the posts.

But a funny thing happened during that game.  A defense that had struggled of late suddenly came together, and a rookie keeper stood his ground.  We escaped Montreal down 1-0 and in the strongest test of character of the season, knocked Montreal out with a 2-0 win at home.  I remember sitting next to Jay before the game.  I didn’t say a word to him – his emotions were written all over his face.  He was nervous and felt horrible.  As kids in the stands kept asking him questions, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he just hid in the tunnel.

So when the final whistle blew, the first thing I did was look around for Jay.  There he was, the happiest guy in the stadium.  He ran onto the pitch congratulating his teammates, knowing that vindication was his for the taking.

In a fierce semifinal against a hated rival, the defence stood up and won the series for Jay.  And he would return the favor a week later, saving six shots to help the ‘Caps knock off the number one team in the league, 2-1.  Just yet another chapter in Whitecaps lore.

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