BANNER ELK, N.C. - One week ago the Lees-McRae College men's soccer team played in the 2009 NCAA Division II Men's Soccer National Championship narrowly missing a national title in a season never to be forgotten by anyone at the college or in the surrounding community of Banner Elk, N.C.
In the title game, the Bobcats, who held the number one national ranking longer than anyone for three weeks, faced off against the then number one Forts Lewis Skyhawks. To break down the match-up even further - Lees-McRae a school of 670 campus students with 900 total students counting off campus and the school's satellite campus was up against a team with campus backing of 3,685 students. Banner Elk is a town of roughly 811 compared to Fort Lewis located in the city of Durango, Colorado that has 13,922 people. The Bobcats were up against a team with a bigger budget, better travel and food arrangements and a team with more soccer scholarships, but for 90 minutes on December 5th they deserved just as much of the title as the bigger and taller Fort Lewis, who pulled out the 1-0 win in the 78th minute.
The undersized and undermanned Bobcats took the attack to the Skyhawks for 90 minutes in front a crowd dominated by Bobcat fans. Fifty-two students and two administrators traveled the roughly 716 miles in 14 hours over night on a charter bus to cheer on the Bobcats, some drove separately because no room on the bus and others flew to join the roughly 100 fans that had seen the semifinal match on Thursday. Scattered among the Lees-McRae fans were members of the Banner Elk community, who all season long gave tremendous support to soccer program, players and coaches. Together students, staff and community cheered from 50 minutes before the match until 20 minutes following the match showing the Bobcats their support. Back in Banner Elk in athletic trainers gathered in the training room to watch the match, students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in Williams Gymnasium and Hayes Auditorium to watch, it was like the small town had been put on hold to watch their small college play on the biggest stage the NCAA could offer. After the devastating defeat, the crowd in Tampa gave not one, but three standing ovations, although no one sat down the entire match, to the 23 players and two coaches that had give them so much hope and joy for just over three months.
To reach the finals the Bobcats had to pull their last magical moments of the season in the semifinals against Lewis on Thursday, December 3rd. The Bobcats were down two goals with just over ten minutes remaining and it looked like their season was over. But the first strike came from a player off the bench, Grant Elder, in the 85th minute and the game-tying goal came from an injured former All-American, Lee Squires, who had only played in seven games before that match in the 87th minute. Freshman, Jamie Bladen, converted the Bobcats final penalty kick of the shootout to advance the Bobcats - Bladen scored the game winner in the Elite Eight to send the Bobcats to the Final Four. Goalkeeper, Sean Paradise, playing in front of his hometown crowd, was by far the best player of the pitch that day. He stopped one penalty kick in regulation and the first penalty kick in the shootout off the same foot of the Lewis player he had stuffed in regulation to lift the Bobcats to center stage. An improbable comeback from a team that had only comeback twice all season in matches and both of those were in the NCAA Southeast Regional.
A Conference Carolinas official called the Final Four match one of greatest conference men's soccer matches he had ever seen, but was it more? Could it have been the greatest match ever played in the NCAA Division II semifinals? A team coming back from a 2-0 deficit with under ten minutes to play with a goal from a spark of the bench and an injured All-American? It is certainly the greatest game for the 900 Lees-McRae students, the majority of which watching the match, the 30 in the team's travel party and the supporting Bobcat crowd, who shook Tampa University Pepin Stadium on both goals and the game-winning penalty kick.
Heading into the Southeast Regional the Bobcats had dropped two of their last three matches, a 1-0 road loss the Pfeiffer in the team's final regular season match and a 1-0 home loss to Coker in the Conference Carolinas Tournament's semifinal round. The squad opened with a 6-3 come-from-behind win over Wingate to set up for a much anticipated match with Anderson in the Regional Finals. Anderson took the early lead, but the Bobcats held the lead in the waning minutes of the match before the Trojan keeper stuffed in a loose ball with nine seconds in regulation, but that didn't keep the Bobcats from reaching what seemed to be destined. Less than a minute into overtime Paradise took a free kick from just outside his box that was brought down by freshman Luke Perry, conference freshman of the year, and laid off to Squires for the game winner. In the Elite Eight it was Bladen's 30-yard strike, his third from that distance, to send the Bobcats were no team Bobcat team, Conference Carolinas men's soccer team or Southeast Region men's soccer team had ever been before, the Final Four.
Who are these 28 Bobcats that made history for a region, conference and school? Whalley, assembled this team starting in 2006 with senior class of Berin Boracic, Ignacio Falco, Dylan Lawerence, Dale Parker and Paradise. These four seniors will depart Lees-McRae all with diplomas and as the most winningest class in men's soccer history at Lees-McRae with a 64-15-9 record and with three Sweet Sixteen trips, two Elite Eight matches, one Final Four match and one National Championship Runner-up. In the finals, Boracic, a two-time All-American, controlled the match working through the Fort Lewis defense at will. The strong Bosnian, whose life story is one of war in Bosina and freedom in America, held possession and left nothing on the field in his final college match. Paradise was everything and more in goal for the Bobcats with six saves including three in the first 20 minutes as the Bobcats struggled with nervous play in finals and for his efforts the senior was awarded with his first All-American honors. These five players brought the Bobcats, who had never been on soccer's national scene prior to their arrival in Banner Elk to soccer's biggest stage.
Following the seniors is a junior class compiled of three improbable heroes, two transfers and injured two-time All-American. Sam Kennedy, a junior college transfer whose team won the NJCAA National Championship in 2008, gave the Bobcats stability in the midfield someone who set the tone of the match with a defensive mind for the Bobcats. Another transfer, Richard Guffens gave the Bobcats a big man up front they desperately needed. Guffens, who had the best firt touch in the tournament, was second on the team in goals and led the team in assists. Squires, who bust onto the scene in 2007 with 21 goals and 25 goals in 2008 spent 2009 battling through injury only appearing in nine games at the end of the season, but played in the biggest matches for the Bobcats earning the 2009 Southeast Regional Tournament Offensive MVP for his outstanding play in the regional. Sophomores Jamie Price a right back, Luke Duffy an outstanding quite centerback, Luke Staats a left back, David Palmer an outside midfielder and reverse outside midfielder Grant Elder easily could be called the core of this years team. The three back line players combined with the attacking skill and speed of Palmer and spark of Elder did their jobs all season including the Final Four and Finals. Freshman Perry, an outside midfielder, and Bladen, a center mid, were just the final missing pieces to the starters that Whalley and assist coach Jay Benfield had created. A talent of reserve players ranging from the solid defensive play of junior Logan Linton to the speed of freshman Bermudian Reiko Trott gave the 2009 Bobcats their final puzzle pieces.
The 2009 Bobcats were simply a family. They did everything together because of their small school and frankly they wouldn't have it any other way. The team had the support of each other, the school and the community as they embarked on their season long journey starting August 10th with two-a-days in the warm North Carolina air and ended in heartbreak on a cold day in December in Tampa, Florida playing in the final match of the 2009 NCAA men's soccer season. They played as long as they could in 2009 achieving what they and the others who made the three month long season journey with them will always remember as one of the greatest soccer season of their lives. Twenty-three student athletes and two coaches gave their school, town, fans and sport something to remember as they put Lees-McRae College a small liberal arts school tucked in the mountains of North Carolina on the map, a goal they set out to accomplish.