We are the champions, (again) my friends

With the pain of last year’s finals defeat entrenched in the memories of many of the players, the Richland men’s soccer team went into the national championship game against Nassau with a point to prove. After conceding an early goal, the Richland Thunderducks rallied back in Herkimer, New York, to stake an emphatic 6-1 victory over the Nassau Lions.

Richland forward, James Sesay fell to his knees, overcome with emotion. Teardrops trickled down his face as the full-time whistle sounded. One after another, his teammates came to congratulate him.

Carlos Valdez, center celebrates Richland’s victory over Nassau in the championship game in Herkimer, New York, Nov. 11.

Carlos Valdez, center celebrates Richland’s victory over Nassau in the championship game in Herkimer, New York, Nov. 11.

“I was crying. I finally accomplished something that I was striving for since last year. I cried because I just had a flashback since the first of August last year. I started thinking about how I went through all those moments and finally we achieved what we were struggling for. It was a great moment,” Sesay said.

The moment was a year in the making.

On Nov 11, 2017- Richland men’s soccer team fell flat in their quest to notch back-to-back championships at the hands of Genesee College. Sesay scored the lone goal for Richland, but it wasn’t enough. Genesee scored two goals with no reply to deny Richland hardware. With the result came a moment of sullen reflection.

This year was a stark contrast.

Richland’s Lucio Martinez leaps to get past Nassau’s goalkeeper.

Richland’s Lucio Martinez leaps to get past Nassau’s goalkeeper.

Six minutes into the first half, Nassau’s Jean Paul Rodriguez was played down the left flank. He ran onto the ball and whipped a cross into the penalty box. Richland’s Mariano Fazio scuffed his clearance and Jamie Quiroz reacted swiftly to place it beyond the keeper’s reach.

Richland pressed the Nassau defense. On two occasions Sesay was through with only the keeper to beat. Extra touches and a rashness in front of the goal left Sesay and Richland ruing missed opportunities. The Lions held on for the next 39 minutes, taking a 1-0 lead into the half time break.

“My head coach, Sean Worley, said something to me [and] everything about me changed during the second half. Last year they [Genesee] took something that belongs to you. What [are] you going to do about it?,” Sesay said. “Once [Worley] said that to me, it changed everything in me.”

Three minutes into the second half, a Nassau defender fouled Richland’s Toi Yamaoka, giving Richland a set piece opportunity. Richland’s Lucio Martinez swung a curling free kick into the penalty box and Fazio towered above the Nassau defense to head in the equalizer.

“We work on set pieces a lot and I knew that free kick was going to be a crucial part of the game. I know my backline and I knew one of them was going to be in there,” said Martinez in a post-game interview with NJCAA commentator, Josh Braun.

The equalizer swung the momentum in Richland’s favor. A barrage of Richland forwards attacked the Nassau defense relentlessly. Nassau’s players were resolute but couldn’t hold on for long.

Twenty-three minutes later, a Nassau defender impeded the run of Richland’s Carlos Valdez at the edge of the box. Alvaro Rodriguez took the resulting set-piece and Martinez, who had been the talisman for extended periods during the game, connected with the ball to head in the winner.

“It was my first header in the whole season. I got the goal, it was a play that we planned before the game and it worked,” Martinez said. “From the start of the game we knew it was going to be ours but we had to go and prove it to them.”

Richland’s second goal was a dagger in the heart of the Lions, but that didn’t stop the onslaught. Richland went on a rampage.

Richland goalkeeper Pablo Cubas hit a punt across the field, splitting the Nassau backline. Sesay ran onto the ball. His blistering pace was too much for the trailing defenders and, with the Nassau keeper closing in, he chipped the ball into goal.

Martinez, Sesay and Demario Cameron scored afterwards to round out a comprehensive win.

Sesay was crowned the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. He scored five goals and assisted one over three games played in the nationals.

“I was expecting Lucio to win the MVP. Maybe it’s the overall tournament, because I scored the highest goals overall [in] the tournament,” Sesay said. “It’s a great memory. In the next two years or three years you [will] always have that flashback.”

Sesay alongside Fazio and Martinez were named on the All-Tournament team.

Worley was named coach of the tournament.

“It feels great, because last year we had a great game against Genesee. We were on the losing side. [Three] years before in 2015, Nassau knocked us out in the semifinal in overtime. So that was definitely in the back of our mind and so we conveyed that to our kids,” Worley said in a post-game interview.

“Last year was a good learning experience and the second half, we just stepped up. We knew they [Nassau] could not keep up with us for 90 minutes. At crunch time, we put it in and that’s what it’s all about,” Worley said.

Moments after the Richland men’s team had clinched its national title, over 850 miles away at Wedgbury Stadium in Loves Park, Ill., 85 miles northwest of Chicago, Richland women’s team was on its way to etching its name in history.

Richland men’s soccer players, gathered, in the bus after their win, sheltered from the unforgiving New York cold, and watched the final moments of the women’s final through the small screen of a phone.

The whole bus frantic in anticipation hit a rapturous chorus, they counted down the final seconds of the game, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” It was double the victory, double the celebration.

The win capped a historic double championship for Richland College.