By Scott Martin
“My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” -Forrest Gump
Last night was Senior Night for the Pacelli High School soccer team. I’m the assistant coach with the primary responsibility of analysis and implementation of tactics. It’s really not a bad gig.
I’ve always been a head coach. Of the many youth, high school, and college programs that I either inherited or started, none came to me with a winning record. My playing career was just the opposite as I never experienced a losing season.
Our opponent last night was Columbus Catholic. Pacelli has never tied Columbus, let alone ever beaten them. Both are small parochial schools. The soccer difference is experience, technical skill, and roster depth. We’re on the backside of each item on the list.
“My Mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” – Forrest Gump
In our first meeting with Columbus earlier in the season, we were down 1-0 in the second half and pushed forward on a corner kick to tie. The gamble backfired and their counter-attack had us down 2-0 within seconds.
It was after that loss that I had my brief discussion with Jacob, a sophomore that questions his ability. During it, I bestowed a phrase that I often rely on to get a message across to players that are experiencing self-doubt: “Turn off your brain and play from your heart.” Since that speech, Jacob has played freely and creatively in the central midfield.
“A bullet? That jumped up and bit you.” -Man on bench
“Oh, yes sir. Bit me right in the buttocks.” -Forrest Gump
With his play, we were able to change our system to one that allows for a stronger attack. But we were still missing the ability to link the back line with the front. This is where our lack of experience, technical skill, and roster depth bites us in the buttocks: We lose the ball in the midfield.
But last night, the head coach, Nick, approached me as the players warmed up. “I had an epiphany today.” He said. I turned from watching the Columbus warmup with an intrigued look on my face then tilted my head to encourage him to go on.
“What if we move Charlie back to Stopper which will relieve him from being man-marked up top and slide Sam back into the central midfield. Then move Jacob up top and Dak to an outside mid?” Nick said with a pause. “Is this coming from your gut?” I asked my much younger colleague. “And you considered all scenarios, including our lack of depth?” I added. “Absolutely!” Nick responded with greater conviction.
I paused then asked, “Are you prepared to play either right or left-handed (this would allow us to link the back with the front at least on one side)?” Nick paused and responded “Yes.” There were no further questions between us. We called in the players that would be affected and made the changes.
“You have to do the best with what God gave you.” – Mrs. Gump
With adjustments made and starting players introduced to the crowd made up of parents from both schools — according to COVID guidelines, the match began. But just minutes into the match, our goalkeeper and a defender were confused about a situation and allowed the ball to be collected and scored by a Columbus attacker.
“What’s normal anyways?”-Forrest Gump
Here we were at the six-minute mark down to the top team in the league — as usual.
I looked to Nick to check his demeanor and wondered if he would pitch out his gut feeling. He looked downwards and paused for a moment, but lifted his head and refocused on the task at hand. I nodded to myself in appreciation for the position he was now in. Nick reminds me of myself as a young coach; the self-imposed pressure and questioning. But Nick held to his conviction and our play began to settle.
As the match proceeded, we were able to link our attack from back to front. In this half, it was on the left side. Fewer passes went errant to the feet of the Columbus players and play flowed freely. Our young attackers that were comprised of a freshman and two sophomores, were able to get off shots as well.
“Mama always had a way of explaining things so I could understand them.”- Forrest Gump
At halftime, following the recognition of our six seniors, Mac, Ian, Sam, Sam, Charlie, and Alex, we retired to the area behind our dugout to discuss half number two as the dance corps performed on the field. We were playing steadily, proactively, and with conviction but a tweak was needed.
Through the years, I’ve always noticed a tendency for play to occur on the side of the coach — or at least my teams. Understand that I’m not a coach that barks to players to give instruction and neither is Nick. Instead, I’m collecting information and making calculations in my head to provide to our players and make any needed adjustments.
For the second half, Nick announced that we would switch from playing left-handed to right-handed. Dak and Jacob would shore up the mid and front roles on that side.
As he usually does, Nick threw the platform to me after his spiel. To be sure I was getting the full attention of each player, I continued looking down in deep thought then slowed raised my head and threw a question to Nick. “If we’re down by one goal, at what point are you going to push in your chips and move Charlie forward?” This seemed to catch him off guard a bit, but that’s part of my job; to question.
“15 minutes? 10 minutes? Five minutes?” I added to his list of things to consider. “And if we score, will you be satisfied with a tie and slide Chuck back to Stopper?”
Forrest: What’s my destiny, Mama?
Mrs. Gump: You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.
The second half continued much the same as the first with both teams producing solid counter-attacks with no result. As the clock displayed 25 minutes to go, I said to Nick, “The soccer gods need to protect us until we hit the 15-minute mark. Then adrenaline will kick in and we’ll be good to go.”
Sure enough, as we hit the marker, it was Columbus that began to show signs of urgency. They weren’t comfortable playing the role of Goliath to our David. Then, at 14 minutes, Nick made the change by moving Charlie, our leading scorer, to the central attacking position.
“Me and Jenny goes together like peas and carrots.” -Forrest Gump
Play began to be on their side of the halfway line as our counter-attacks began to penetrate more effectively. At the 7-minute mark, a melee happened in their box and the score was tied.
I grabbed Nick’s attention and asked him a very important question. As I pointed to the scoreboard, I said “Are you satisfied with that score?” Nick returned Charlie to Stopper and Sam became more recessed in his central midfield spot as we began to count down the time.
“Mama always said, dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.” – Forrest Gump
I often make light of pressure. As a player and coach, I learned to feed off it. There is nothing more satisfying to an athlete than to compete “in the zone”. I enjoy coaching there as well.
As the clock ticked under five minutes, I reminded Nick to tell any substitutes to take their time upon entry. I yelled to Bennet, our center back, to get his attention then pointed to my wrist as a reminder to waste time whenever possible. I also began to conjure the soccer gods, to plead with them to hurry the clock, create a miscue — anything to get these kids a well-deserved tie against a team they had never earned a point from.
Then, at 3:47 on the clock, the roof fell in as one of their forwards scored off a ball that caromed off one of our defenders. “Shit!” I said under my mask then looked up in disdain to the soccer gods. “These kids don’t deserve that!” I said in spite.
“I never thanked you for saving my life.” -Lieutenant Dan
My heart aches as I’m sure it does for all 14 players and Nick. We’re off today. Our final match of the regular season is Monday.
Let’s simplify the game.