Four years ago, as freshmen trying to wade through the rollicking waters of the varsity level, the Valley Catholic boys' soccer team bottomed out.
The Valiants won just one game in 2016, didn't take a single Cowapa League match and plummeted to the depths of the conference in their Class 4A debut. Circumstantially, times were tough. Valley Catholic is the kindest, tenderest, most understanding athletic community around, but it's used to winning across the board in all sports. To be at the bottom of the totem pole, stunk, to put it bluntly.
But from the cinders of that luckless season, a freshmen class filled with potential and talent held firm. Young budding stars like Bailey Hill, Nicolas Tubito, Connor Matto and Spencer Wells stayed attached and remained steadfast in their mission to bring Valley boys' soccer to prominence. A year later, as sophomores, Valley won 10 games. Last season the Valiants won Cowapa, reached the quarterfinals and won 12 games. The jumps in progress were meteoric. The rise was unanticipated to everybody but the Valiants themselves. Head coach Mike Chertude could see the bright future ahead. He instilled a team-first, pass-savvy style, imparted unselfish maxims and stayed around to see the process through.
With each passing year, their goals and hopes bloomed. This season Valley wanted a 4A state title, to complete a cosmic journey from worst to first. Again, the Valiants vanquished the Cowapa and earned the highest playoff seed in school history en route to a semifinal home match with Woodburn.
The Bulldogs, unfortunately, proved too much to handle. Woodburn grabbed a 2-0 lead in the second half and held on for dear life to take the semifinal bout 2-1 at Valley Catholic High School. The championship apex wasn't meant to be. Yet, the process in getting to this point is the stuff of legend, even for a school with such a rich athletic history. It was a sea change that'll be talked about and referred to for years to come, for any Valley program that goes through any sort of ringer. There's always a light at the end of the tunnel if a team is willing to stick together through the trials and tribulations of tough times.
"We brought us up from nothing to something," Hill said. "I think we started a dynasty. It was hard…freshman year we were a 'nobody' team. We really grew together. We came in as a bunch of kids who didn't really know what we were doing. We came into a failing program. I didn't know if we were going to be anything. But all we did was believe in each other and made it happen. We turned it around and there's no better feeling."
Hill said the moment he set foot on campus as a freshman, the program felt like family like he was part of something bigger than himself. The senior class built a special bond that expanded and included underclassmen over the years as they came through the doors.
"You won't catch one of us without somebody else in the group," Hill said with a smile.
Woodburn scored midway through the first half off beautiful ball movement from the midfield through the final third of the pitch to go up 1-0.
But Valley goalie Luka Rak made two amazing saves in a one-minute span. One was a one versus keeper situation, the other on a clear Woodburn attempt that the Valiant dove for and stopped with both hands. And Rak shuffled over to his left and caught a Bulldog header attempt. A minute later Rak slid into a Woodburn runner like a base stealer careening into second base to halt a counter.
A free kick from Tubito to Cooper Howard broken up. A deep pass to Hill blocked by Woodburn's high-flying goalie. Valley trailed 1-0 at the half. The Valiants were able to find cracks in the Bulldog defense, disorganizing Woodburn's backline with pressure and aggression.
"My classmates, my teammates, we brought it up," Hill said. "We played as a team. We played as a family. We put everything we had on the field today. Unfortunately, we lost, but we were playing hard, playing for each other. There is nothing else we could've done out there. Woodburn is a fantastic team that played well on and off the ball."
Woodburn put home a penalty kick eight minutes into the second half to go up 2-0. Yet, after a fruitless first 76 minutes or so, Valley came back to life. The Valiants went on the hoof and found Hill, who got out in front of the Bulldog defense, jumped to meet a cross in the air, got his forehead on the ball and put it over the Woodburn goalie into the net. The crowd erupted. Valley's players grabbed the ball and sprinted back toward midfield, eager to mount a tying attempt. Yet, after a conference between two of the game's referees, the judges ruled Hill was offsides when he made his move forward and wiped the goal away.
"We could've changed that around," Hill said. "We were building our momentum toward the end, especially after that missed call of a goal. We were playing with them all the way. We really hit another level after that."
Indeed, Valley didn't let off the gas. Another push into Woodburn territory sent a wave of Valiants into the box and Wells buried a close-range look to make bring Valley within 2-1 with 2:42 remaining. A few more last-ditch efforts never equated to an equalizer that would've sent the match to overtime. Nonetheless, this season, this team set a new standard for the program going forward.
"I've never been prouder of anything else in my entire life," Hill said. "All it takes is hard work, effort and a little bit of heart. You can't do anything if you don't believe in it. Having the chance to build it with this group of kids and these coaches and this program is wonderful."
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