The quest to notch historic back-to-back victories for Richland at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division III finals turned sour and ended in heartbreak on Oct 12 for the team that had warmed itself to the people’s hearts with its superlative qualifying wins.
An inspired performance by the Genesee Cougars led them to their first national championship to the disappointment of the Richland Thunderducks and their tnumerous fans.
In the ninth minute Richland was given a fortuitous chance. A Genesee defender played a sloppy back pass to the goalkeeper and Richland forward James Sasay didn’t waste the opportunity. He capitalized on the mistake. Intercepting the ball, he raced towards goal and smashed it past the hapless Genesee goalkeeper.
Fifteen minutes later, Genesee tied the game. A Billy Murphy pass got past a sleeping Richland defense. Striker Charlie Livesey rounded the onrushing Richland goalkeeper, Elias Munoz, to tap the ball into an empty net.
The match remained a 1-1 tie at halftime, but it didn’t last too long. In the 52nd minute a hopeful ball was played over the top into the Richland penalty box. The defense struggled to clear it out and Iyad Lablack rifled a volley to give the Cougars a 2-1 lead.
The Thunderducks tried to claw their way back into the game, but the Cougars defense was resolute with their goalkeeper making key saves in the game.
Reflecting on the game, coach Sean Worley said Genesee turned it up a notch once they went 2-1 up. “They [Genesee] went into like fifth gear. They started playing really hard, beating us to the ball, getting numbers behind the ball, playing very good defense and physically just doing great.”
Richland forward Joshua Peloquin also believes there wasn’t much cohesion between the players. “We were in a little bit over our heads coming into the tournament and so when we got into the final I think it affected us.”
Worley said, “We made two mistakes and they scored two goals and those goals they got were lack of communication from the backline. It’s not easy to defend well the whole game.”
He believes Genesee had luck on its side. “Their chances came on counterattack and mistakes and not because they had this great buildup or sustained possession. The team that normally wins the championships is the one that gets those critical moment breaks and for whatever reason we didn’t.”
In spite of a disappointing end to the tournament, two Richland players made the All-Tournament team. Mateo Gutierrez sophomore and James Sasay were among the 11 players honored. Sasay’s goal in the final ensured that he finished the year with 27 goals in 16 games.
Defending a national collegiate title is no mean feat for a two year college. For Richland to play in back-to-back finals is remarkable. Although they couldn’t the title, they can say that they tried.
It might not have been their day, but there will be other chances at the crown. There usually are.