By Tony Buiniskis
"Can you bring your team to Regionals?" was the question. Just hours before the EPYSA #2 team had decided not to come to replace their other team that had been disqualified. "Yes, we can come" was the answer and as we now know history was in the making. They went undefeated in Regionals starting with a 4-1 victory over last years U-14 National Champion. The word was starting to spread; HEY we have a really good team and story here. Regionals culminated with a 2-0 blanking of a very good NJ PDA team.
Next the planning for Nationals.
Every team that goes to Nationals must have a state representative accompany them and you can not split duties if you have more than one team. It is one team - one state representative. In the case of Cal South since they had 8, yes 8 teams at nationals, that meant 8 state representatives. They also provide each team with a $10,000 (not a mistake) state subsidy.
At Regionals you get a work book that DETAILS each and every item that MUST be completed and by what date. Chris Burgasser, Rhinos team Manager, and I spent many hours making sure we complied with every request. I left for Nationals on Monday morning, June 22nd. I wanted to get a "lay of the land" so that when the team came down I could give them directions to fields, restaurants, movies and other items of interest and to make sure we knew where we were going so as not to be late.
The team arrived on Tuesday and held a light work out at the Maryland Soccer Complex in the afternoon. The temperature was about 93 with high humidity. The boys were glad to receive the free water from Aquafina that I had picked up as part of my state rep duties. At the conclusion of the practice, I distributed items that were donated by adidas for the event. This included t-shirts, hats and shoe bags. Next came another surprise, adidas had donated two complete sets of new uniforms, in Rhino colors, to them for this tournament. That evening we all attended the opening ceremonies which included a barbecue and dance. They had also arranged for several inflatable obstacle course type stations to be installed in the Discovery Center at the complex for the boys to enjoy. The coach had announced that the team would be leaving by 8:00 pm for the 15 minute trip back to the hotel. They had a team meeting scheduled for 9:00 pm that night; this would be the norm for the entire week.
Wednesday started with a team breakfast that was scheduled for 6:30 am. Food choices were selected by the coaching staff and were served buffet style. The team departed for the game versus the Aiken Fire from S.C. at 8:00 am due to the requirement for sign-ins. The mood was somber and focused. The results showed it as they completely dominated the game, beating Aiken 6-2. They spent the remainder of the afternoon resting and taking care of injuries. Ice tubs and heat were applied as prescribed by the coaching staff. A team meeting that night went over the day's results and they discussed the next day's opponent PVSC Raiders from Southern California.
Thursday dawned cloudy, overcast, and much cooler than the previous day. The action soon heated things up as both teams went at it on the field. The action was non-stop end to end. The Rhinos scored first and PVSC tied it late in the half. The Rhinos went ahead early in the second half, PVSC pressed the attack but the Rhinos defense held and the 2-1 victory was preserved.
On Friday the sky opened up and it poured all morning. It was a testament to the design of the complex and the fields that the pitch was not really affected by the weather. The Rhinos jumped out to an early 3 - 0 lead. The Sockers F.C. of Chicago charged right back knowing they needed to win or tie to go through. Again stellar defense and outstanding goal keeping help the Rhinos maintain their unbeaten string. Rhinos 3, Sockers FC 2.
Saturday was a "Day of Rest". We had been invited by the PR firm of Gordon C. James to attend a tour of the White House on Saturday morning and the boys and their siblings who were there were able to attend. Parents were excluded. Following that, NY West hosted a spaghetti dinner for the team prior to a trip to RFK stadium for a double header between the Washington Freedom and the Cyber Rays and DC United and the New England Revolution. Washington was able to split the double header with the Freedom winning on a late goal by Rochester's own Abby Wambach (1-0), DC United fell 1-0 to the Revolution. We departed the stadium at 7:45 for the trip back to the hotel via the DC Metro line. A team meeting again was held at 9:00 pm. All day Saturday, planes, trains and automobiles delivered fans to the hotel from Rochester. Parents who were unable to be there during week, former coaches, and Jim Mort, President of the Rhinos, arrived. The boys really appreciated the effort they made to come and watch them play.
Sunday - the BIG day dawned sunny hot and HUMID.
Team breakfast at 6:00 followed by a team meeting and then the trip to the complex. They appeared, in the words of Coach Chris Apple "Nervous and maybe a bit overconfident". He said they would address the latter in a meeting before game time. The game started right on schedule and it settled into a battle of the mid field and defenses as both teams probed with their forwards. Both had good opportunities early, but it was Rochester that netted the only goal. Both teams continued to press, but it became a battle of endurance. Mid field as is the case dominated the play .
Now just to correct a "Slight inaccuracy" in the previous reports. The fourth official announced there would be two minutes of stoppage time added to the end of the game. His watch indicated when the stoppage time started and it was one minute and 30 seconds later when I asked him how much time was left. He indicated 30 seconds. It was then 20 seconds later when the PK was awarded on the tackle from behind in the box by the Rhinos defenseman. As you can imagine, the roar of disbelief that went out was heard all the way to DC. But the official prevailed and the ball was spotted on the mark and the two key players took their spots. Dave CAPPUCCIO stuffed the kick stretching up and to his left swatting the ball out of play across the touch line. As the ball was being picked up by the player from the Aiken Fire the referee blew his whistle indicating the game was over and the Rhinos were the National Champions. Rhinos 1, Aiken Fire 0.
Needless to say the tears of joy were abundant on the Rochester side and the sorrow could be felt from across the field for the boys of Aiken. Both teams exchanged congratulatory handshakes as the parents streamed onto the field. I was most pleased to have been included in the celebration as many of the boys sought me out to offer hugs and handshakes and thank-you's for what NY West had done for them.
You all should be proud of the time and effort that you have put into this sport because this team represented us all in a fashion we should be proud of.