As the Cleveland faithful went wild and the last of the Sunset boys' soccer team made its way across the pitch for the last time, Ellis Harwood snuck a peek over toward the triumphant Warriors who whooped and hollered into the unseasonal warm night.
The raw, genuine emotions on the Apollo midfielder's face told you everything you needed to know. Sunset, after an unforeseen successful season filled with a runner-up finish in Metro and a second-round Class 6A home playoff game with Cleveland, was eliminated from the postseason in a 2-0 match on Nov. 6 at Sunset High School. Harwood was as confident as anyone in Sunset's hopes at making a state run. He captained this team, primarily made up of underclassmen and newcomers, with a firm but friendly hand. To witness the Apollos outperform expectations all year, yet fall just shy of the quarterfinals, was somehow satisfying yet searing at the same time.
"I'm incredibly proud, but devasted," Harwood said. "A lot of non-returners made the difference. A lot of leadership was needed, so I was glad to fill that up. We just lost a little off track with our defense. I wouldn't say (Cleveland) was the better team, but the better team doesn't always win the game. That's what it came down to."
"We left everything we had out on the field and there are no regrets," Sunset senior forward Julian Thuillier said.
Thuillier claimed Cleveland should've been ranked higher than 10th in the 6A bracket, a notion backed by the Warriors' high-quality play in the second half. Running down toward a traveling boisterous band of Cleveland fans who packed the "away" stands, the Warriors came out with their hair on fire in the final 40 minutes and scored twice: once with 16 minutes, the other with nine minutes to go in the game. The taller Warriors crammed the backline to thwart Sunset's free-flowing offense and oftentimes sent two defenders at Thuillier whenever the ball came his way. As a result, Sunset had to shoot from farther away than desired, which resulted in shots that were less than ideal looks. Cleveland continually subbed in fresh players to get lively legs in the game. But mostly, Thuillier said, Cleveland's will was the driving force.
"They wanted it more than us in that second half," Thuillier said. "We wanted it, but they had a whole new energy. They had a surprising crowd that definitely helped them. They passed the ball well and you could tell they were wearing us down and we're going to get a goal. We just tried to hang in there, but they found the breakthrough."
Sunset lost a whopping 18 seniors off last year's team, leaving behind a dearth that screamed "rebuilding year" at the onset of the season. But Thuillier was absolutely huge and finally healthy after a career marred by unfortunate injuries. The senior forward, so fast, so dangerous in the open field, won Metro Player of the Year. Thuillier didn't play a match for nearly five months after getting injured during the spring playing club ball. In fact, the Apollo forward's first game back didn't occur until the start of the high school season. Yet, Thuillier played in every contest and was a constant offensive force in the final third of the pitch.
"It's really hard to watch your team from the bench and not being able to help them out," Thuillier said. "(Winning MPOY) was really good news. I'm just really pleased with coming back and being able to play. I think I did a pretty good job in the Metro League and I'm glad the coaches thought so too."
Harwood was awesome running the show in the midfield. Goalie Ajax Zappitello performed at an all-league level. Younger players such as Pierce Walker and Luke Wheeler stepped up big. Mason Norby and Daniel Zuccari were first-team All-Metro and fellow defender Jacob McCulloch was honorable mention All-Metro. The Apollos entered this fall flying under the radar, underdogs who ended up with 10 wins.
"We kind of had a ragtag thing going on," Thuillier joked. "If you watch our warmups, we don't look that professional. The other team looks amazing. But we impressed a lot of our opponents this season."
As one of the seniors Thuillier said, it forced him to grow into more of a leadership role. That, in turn, helped him grow as a player. The fleet forward showered all kinds of praise on head coach Jeff Gadawski for his work on the sidelines but said Sunset was able to self-police and govern its play on the pitch.
"It almost felt like we were coaching ourselves most of the time," Thuillier said. "We knew what we had to get done. It wasn't like we were forced to do things. Everyone was doing things because they wanted to do them. I enjoyed leading this team. I met a lot of good people, great players."
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