If we pay attention, we are occasionally rewarded with unexpected opportunities to observe the brilliance of life when triumph and defeat collide. Such was the case, earlier in the week, when I watched the championship game of the Nebraska Girls State Soccer Tournament, pitting Elkhorn South against Gretna.
I hadn’t planned on watching the game – I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched an entire soccer game, but I was interested in this one, because my children attend Gretna schools, and my wife and I have known a handful of the Gretna players since they were very young. I didn’t even realize that the game was televised, until I sat down and read the newspaper. When I tuned in, Elkhorn South had just scored the game’s only goal to take the lead 1-0, and only five minutes remained.
Things didn’t look good for Gretna. They had already been beaten by Elkhorn South twice this year – not only beaten, but shut out. In fact, over the past two seasons, Elkhorn South had shut out Gretna five times. Shut-outs are a bit of a thing for Elkhorn South, which was going for its 18th shut-out of the season and 19th straight win. Gretna had only five minutes remaining to do what very few had this year – score a goal on this incredible defense.
As time ticked away, it looked like Elkhorn South would capture the state title that had evaded them the year before. In that championship game, they had given up the lead with 35 seconds remaining, and would go on to lose the game in a shoot-out.
Forty-four seconds remained this time when defender Sarah Zeleny took a shot from 40 yards away. The senior had never scored a goal in her high school career, and one of the state’s best defenses was between her and the goal. None of that mattered, as she placed the shot perfectly just above the goalie’s reach to force overtime.
Even Zeleny was surprised. “Usually when I shoot it, it doesn’t go anywhere near the goal,” she said in a newspaper interview.
The Elkhorn South team never recovered. Just like last year, they gave up a late lead and lost in extra minutes. While they were stunned in disbelief, Gretna was ecstatic. Meanwhile, from my recliner, I was thankful for the lessons in fairness, faith, opportunity and momentum that the game provided.
Fairness: Elkhorn South played a near-perfect game and had been dominant all season. After their heartbreak in last year’s final, they were due some good fortune. Instead, luck went the other way, and their dominant effort ended in frustration. Sometimes, we can do everything right, and still not succeed. Life isn’t always fair.
Faith: Facing daunting odds, the Gretna team didn’t give up. It would have been easy to accept their fate as another shut-out victim, but they didn’t, and though she had never scored a goal, Zeleny seized the opportunity to help her team. When the odds are against us, faith gives us a chance.
Opportunity: In a normal situation, Zeleny would have never tried such a long shot with such a low probability of success; she would have tried to move the ball to a teammate. However, in this case, because precious little time was left, doing what she normally did would have likely resulted in defeat. Though she hadn’t made a goal in her entire career, she had practiced for that moment for years, and when it came, she didn’t hesitate. Sure, luck was involved, but luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Momentum: Since I know very little about soccer, I rely on others, and the consensus seems to be that Elkhorn South played better than Gretna, until Zeleny’s goal. Shortly after that goal, Gretna scored the game-winning goal and then held on to win 2-1. I don’t know if the Elkhorn South team ever gave up two goals so quickly. Momentum can be energizing when it’s with us, and crushing, when it isn’t. When momentum favors us, we need to do everything we can to capitalize.
I watched the Nebraska Boys State Soccer Tournament Final the next day, and whatever luck and momentum Gretna had came to an end early, as the boys lost 1-0. In fact, they lost to a team coached by one of my former students at the school where I once taught and coached myself. Though, I’m still not a soccer fan, both games were gifts I didn’t expect to receive this week.
Congratulations Champions: Gretna Lady Dragons and Columbus Scotus Shamrocks (especially Coach Brezenski)