When it was all over, after the first shock wave of celebration turned into a pile of screaming teammates, and after the awards were handed out, senior captain Colin Lozito, the team’s motor, walked to the corner of the field. He crouched down in a moment of solitude and stared across the grassy expanse he had just played on for 80 minutes, tears in his eyes. “I just really needed a minute to take it in,” said Lozito. “I’ve never been on top before, I don’t know what that feels like, and most of our players don’t either. It was just a moment to take in, a good feeling.”
Last year Lozito had a different experience. His moment alone was to comprehend a comeback that ended in a heartbreaking overtime loss. The same Proctor Phantoms had won the 2012 title game just down the road in South Royalton, a day that lived in infamy within all of Twin Valley’s ballers. Carrying that memory as a chip on their shoulder, the Wildcats would prove unstoppable this season, each victory fueling the next one, and with one more to go, the Wildcats came prepared with the same game plan, as well as a collection of zany haircuts.
Right off the bat, Twin Valley’s leading scorer Dal Nesbitt set the pace, taking a pass from Nick Nilsen in the middle and nailing the first goal of the game from the right side less than four minutes in.
Just like the Wildcats, the Proctor Phantoms are a team made up of experienced, fast seniors who wouldn’t just roll over, especially with the possibility of being three-peat champions on the line. Dermot Hughes, Daniel Smith, and Christopher Clain kept the Wildcat defenders busy, but Twin Valley played the same steady-as-she-goes defense they displayed all year. Dylan Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, and Oscar Smith had one of their best games combined at outside backs, while Eli Park used his closing speed to disrupt chances that made it to his line. Hughes and Clain both came up high with their first shots, while Park came up for a header that went high too, and the match remained an uneasy 1-0 tilt.
Freshman midfielder Troy Felisko had a strong performance as well, getting on the board in the 20th minute. Skylar Boyd bombed a crossing ball from the left corner into the box, where a Phantom defender deflected the ball with his head. This proved to be the result of a crucial miscommunication, as Proctor keeper Reid Farley had come up to snatch the ball out of the air. The play went to Nesbitt on the right side, who had his attempt blocked. Felisko was waiting in an open spot, took the rebound, and shot one into the upper left corner of the net.
Clain would keep coming with shots, as would freshman Gannon McKearin, who came close with a header just before the half. With 40 minutes to play, the Wildcats looked sharp, but there was no way the Wildcats would let up the pressure with only a 2-0 lead.
In the second half, keeper Sam Molner was caught just out of position for a brief, rare moment, and Curtis Tomlinson nearly got a shot off. But Johnson came flying in for the rescue, knocking what could have been a game-changer out of the box. With 15:58 to go, Nesbitt threw a long bomb into the box from the right side where Park was waiting to put the exclamation point on the shutout. For the last 15 minutes, the Wildcats would dominate, closing out the game with a last full measure of effort, to win their trophy, and a piece of personal history.
“This will always be number one (in high school memories)” said Park. “It’s all I’ve thought about over the last year. We were playing for each other, not just to win, and no one is selfish. We work well together and this is what happens when you have that kind of chemistry. You win.”
This will rank as the top memory for a whole group of graduating seniors, who, Park pointed out, have been playing soccer together since they were 5 years old. “It’s so hard knowing it’s all over for the same seven of us, but I couldn’t ask for a better way for it to end,” said Park.
Twin Valley won a championship and denied a third championship in a row for the Phantoms, a bit of payback for coach Buddy Hayford, who was denied a three-peat in 2003 by Proctor. For Hayford, this is the seventh championship in 31 years of coaching, and as the celebration continued, Molner and Lozito made sure to give him a Gatorade bath to mark their triumph.
“Buddy’s been there through thick and thin,” said Lozito. “He’s got his champions going back to the 1980s, and it just shows how good of a coach he is to still bring up championship teams. Without him I don’t know where we’d be right now.”
The boys in red and white collected their trophy, hugged their parents, classmates, and coaches, thanked them for their support, and headed off to a homecoming that included a three-fire-engine escort through Wilmington, as their fans lined East Main Street. As their parade ended, a reception was in place in the school cafeteria. Hayford stood in front of his team and talked about their dedication and thanked the community as well as his assistants, a fitting ending to a day of triumph.
Nesbitt ended the season with 24 goals and 23 assists, while Lozito ended with 19 and 18 respectively. Nilsen had 12 goals, and Felisko had 10.
Saturday’s victory wrapped up what Hayford calls the “triple crown,” placing first in the John Werner Tournament in September, winning the Marble Valley League Championship, and finally, a state championship.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Hayford. “To go 17-0, that’s something not out of a realm of possibility for a team, it’s the goal. Giving up one goal, people will ask if that’s a misprint, no one’s going to believe that.”
En route to capturing Hayford’s seventh state title in nine tries the Wildcats’ 90 goals are second in team history to the 2008 team that put up 92.
“It was a special season,” said Hayford. “It’s as close to perfection as you’ll ever see. I’m just so proud of the boys. They did it the right way, playing hard-nosed soccer with class, talent, and skill. It’s a sportsmanlike bunch.”
Hayford has always been a believer in a strong defensive philosophy. Scoring goals is the fun part, but playing tough defense is where the real test is, and it takes a whole team to play defense, not just the sweepers and backs. “They embraced the ‘We, not me’ attitude,” said Hayford. “They cared more about the team than themselves. You feel like as a coach you did your job, the players did their job, and the fans did theirs, and nobody handed anybody anything.”
Hayford pointed no further than his seven seniors’ leadership as the catalyst for success. They never had a bad day, a day which he assumed would come at some point, but never did. “I’m so glad the underclassmen were able to witness that quality leadership from all seven seniors and the captains in particular.”