An up-and-down season that included two losses to Temple didn’t keep the Tri-Cities Christian soccer team from believing it could win its third state title in four years.
And the Golden Eagles put together their best three-game stretch of the season last week in Murfreesboro, winning the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools state championship with a 3-2 victory against Lighthouse (Antioch).
Tri-Cities was seeded fifth in the eight-team tournament. It defeated fourth-seeded Macon Road (Memphis), 4-1, in the quarterfinals and outlasted top-seeded Temple 1-0 in the semifinals.
Temple was undefeated when it met Tri-Cities in the semifinals, and hadn’t been seriously threatened while beating the Golden Eagles twice (5-1 and 3-1) during the regular season. Temple, the defending state champions, also eliminated TCC in the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament.
“They were 13-0, and everybody was fully expecting them to win the state title again,” Tri-Cities Christian coach Scott Kain said. “We were 6-5-1. It was definitely a Cinderella story.”
Magnifying the upset was the unlikely ending. Drew Blythe said he scored with some 20 seconds remaining. He said the opportunity came thanks to a Daniel Dube kick that covered perhaps 60 yards, and a Temple defender then missing it.
Blythe said his goal came from around 18 yards out, and it triggered mass jubilation.
“It was all a blur,” Blythe said. “Everybody went crazy. ... Temple was shocked.
“We had already lost to them two times but each time we played better and better. So we knew we could beat them. ... Temple’s a huge rival.”
Perhaps Temple coach Shannon Sexton had a premonition when he offered what was apparently good-natured gamesmanship before the semifinal.
“He said, ‘Now coach, you know it’s hard to beat a team three times,’ ” Kain said, “which is funny, because it’s what I’d told my players (for encouragement). And he said, ‘If you beat me, I’m going fishing on Saturday.’ So after the game ... I shook his hand and he smiled and said, ‘Coach, that was a tough game.’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope you enjoy fishing on Saturday, coach.’
“I wasn’t trying to be hateful. It was one of those – he’d tried to get in my mind a little before the game. But he hugged me afterwards and told me it was a well-fought game.”
Blythe was also the man of the hour in the championship, scoring in the last several minutes to seal the 3-2 victory against Lighthouse. He scored from five yards after Sam Barker had headed Dube’s corner kick.
The championship conditions included plenty of rain and puddles, not ideal for a physical opponent.
“That was just a hard-fought game,” Kain said. “They were physical. They had a couple of football players, you could tell, just bigger bodies.”
Aaron Hitefield was instructed to shadow Lighthouse’s premier offensive threat.
“I couldn’t have asked Aaron to stick him any better than he did during that game,” Kain said. “I mean, he just stayed with him and basically kept him in his hip pocket.”
Oddly enough, the championship seemed almost anti-climatic.
“The Temple game, to me, was the sweetest victory,” Kain said. “Winning the state championship was icing on the cake for us.”
Barker, Blythe, Matt Miller and Dube made the all-tournament team. Dube was named MVP.
“Daniel has just a phenomenal foot,” Kain said. “He could strike from 40 yards out. I mean, he did that a couple of different games where he’d put a dagger in somebody.”
Matt Love was a consistent scorer this season. The heart of the team, Kain says, was Hunter Herndon.
“He was our team captain,” Kain said. “He wasn’t a big scorer for us, but it was just his tenaciousness on the field that kept the team going. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but no matter what was going on, if he got hit or knocked down, he was back up on his feet hustling.”
Hudson Williams had the shutout in goal against Temple. Kain said Williams had a productive offseason after learning on the fly while moving to keeper as a sophomore.
“I think this year as a junior he’s gained a lot of confidence,” Kain said. “A lot more poise in the goal watching Hudson this year.”
Kain said several sophomores’ productivity was instrumental in the state title, including defenders Ben Lane and Wade Miller.
“The whole season we were kind of hit and miss,” Kain said. “It started out on a shaky note that I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to coach the team, because of some family issues. And I could just tell it kind of upset everything into a question mark for the boys.”
Reaching their potential was obviously gratifying, as was Kain watching Herndon baptize teammate Pete Rasamikomen in the hotel pool after Thursday’s quarterfinals victory. Kain said Rasamikomen is a third-year exchange student from Thailand who was rasied Buddhist.
“Pete got saved about a month and a half ago,” Kain said, “and on the trip he asked me, ‘Coach, could I get baptized during this tournament with the team there and taking part in it?’ ... I talked to the team about what baptism was and all the families came in the swimming pool area there. We must’ve had 60 people in there, and baptized him in the pool after that win. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was just awesome to see the team and where they were at. … Knowing the team took part in the baptism was pretty cool.”
The players also attended the midnight showing of “Iron Man 3” after the quarterfinals victory, and Kain laughed when asked if all future quarterfinals victories must be followed with a hotel-pool baptism and midnight trip to the theater.
“I knew that movie was either gonna be the biggest mistake I’d made or ‘Hey, this actually worked,’” Kain said. “So maybe I’ve started a tradition there. ... You could just tell the boys were all in stride and working together at the end of the season, and it wasn’t about one player, it was about the team unit. They were talking, they were passing the ball — just there helping each other.
“And against Temple, our boys stepped up and played the best game they had all season.”