Grit. It’s what drove a team that lost seven of their last nine games in 2015 into one that was 90 minutes away from playing on the national stage. It’s what turned skeptics – outsiders who discarded a Cougar team with 17 freshman and a rookie coaching staff at the collegiate level – into believers.
It’s what fueled an improbable 11-game win-streak, a run that launched the Cougars to their first conference title in school history. And even in the waning seconds of Saturday’s 1-0 loss to CCBC Essex in the NJCAA Division I Region XX championship, grit gave hope in the darkest moments.
But, as we all know, rolling up your sleeves and tirelessly working can sometimes only get you so far, and the unpredictable human element often produces fickle results.
Though the Cougars triumphant 2016 season came crashing down on Saturday afternoon, cementing the finest season in school history and going toe-to-toe with the program that’s won every Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference title since 2012 should be something to be proud of.
“This team has surpassed everyone’s expectations,” LaRocca said. “I couldn’t have asked for a tougher, grittier team than we’ve had.”
Based off analytics, the Cougars, offensively, were thoroughly outplayed. CCBC Essex doubled FCC’s shot total, 18-9, and more than tripled corner kick opportunities, 7-2.
FCC could’ve easily been down by two or three goals well before the deciding dagger was doled – a free kick that whizzed past Cougars goalkeeper Joseph Garner with 11:05 to go. What got FCC to that point? The same grit that carried them to their record-breaking season.
“Their skill didn’t get them here,” LaRocca said. “It was their heart, the mind, the love for the game. That’s what got us to this game.”
Garner, the freshman goalkeeper, and a defense that produced five shutouts in the 11-game stretch, turned away every opportunity CCBC Essex presented. With 11:27 remaining in the first half, Garner sprawled to his right to stuff a CCBC Essex free kick.
Before the intermission, Joey Bomango — a freshman back — threw his body in front of a CCBC Essex striker to block a point blank shot right at the doorstep.
With 24:07 to go, Garner dazzled once more when he turned away a CCBC Essex deflection off a corner kick headed for the bottom right corner. At the 22:10 and 17:30 marks, the Cougars defense that allowed 1.09 goals per game dodged a flurry of shots with timely clears.
“Our grit and grind; we could be down 3-0, and we’ll still fight back,” said Quincy Tyler, a sophomore back who played a large hand in the robust defensive play down the stretch.
But what hampered FCC in the deciding minutes were costly fouls, which plated the CCBC Essex game-winning free kick.
“We talked about it,” Tyler said. “That’s pretty much it. … The foul led to the goal.”
Tyler is one of six sophomores who played a leadership hand in the most decorated season in FCC men’s soccer history.
Goalkeeper Dennis Beauclair; backs, Preston Windnagle, Christian Deynes and Bilal Hassane Souley; and forward Gustavo Garcia make up the rest of the sophomore class. Deynes, Hassane Souley and Windnagle anchored the defense in decisive moments. Garcia, who was sidelined for much of the season with a nagging quad injury, was a captain with shifty playmaking ability.
“We battled hard,” Garcia said, who registered four assists in a mere six games. “Took care of business. … Hard work beats talent. Simple as that.”
Garcia and Tyler expect to play at four-year universities, most likely at the Division III level. Before the 2016 season, Garcia’s and Tyler’s talents were often overlooked. One banner later, and four-year schools have taken notice.
For Tyler, a position change prompted by LaRocca from outside wing to outside back flipped a stressful summer with zero offers into an offseason send-off with five offers.
“Coach LaRocca is the best person I know,” Tyler said. “He did all of this in one year. We won the Maryland [Junior College Athletic Conference] in his first year, in only three months of recruiting. Now he has a full year to recruit players.”
LaRocca, who took over Cougars men’s soccer in late January, was handed the keys with miniscule time to build a contending program for the fall season. In that span, a formidable recruiting class that rallied around each other produced FCC’s finest season in school history.
Now, with 17 players returning, LaRocca has a full year to build an even stronger foundation.
At the beginning of the year, nobody thought they’d end the season Saturday afternoon on the outskirts of Baltimore playing to get into the national championship. Not even leaders like Tyler.
“Not at all,” he said. “All we focused on was taking it day-by-day, game-by-game. And we made it here.”
Garcia, on the other hand, sensed it was possible if everything clicked.
“I always thought there was a chance,” he said.
In the end, the 14-4-1 record is believed to be the best record in school history. And the banner that will soon hang from the rafters in the Cougar gymnasium is the only that will say “men’s soccer.”
“One hell of a season,” Tyler said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better season, to be honest. We might not have gotten as far, but nobody imagined we would get this far. We were all just happy that we got here.”
Who knows, if the refs didn’t call the foul that led to the crippling goal, and if there was just a wee-bit of offensive production, FCC could’ve been the ones to compete on the national stage. But LaRocca shut his eyes on Saturday night knowing he controlled what he could only control, and the result just happened to be in the opposition’s favor.
“I have no regrets,” LaRocca said. “I wish I could’ve slowed down and enjoyed every win more, but it was always the next game, the next game. … I’m going to sit back, take a break, and enjoy what this team has accomplished, because it’s a lot.”
Kyle McFadden is the editor-in-chief of The Commuter and has his own weekly column called K-Fadd’s Cauldron. He also co-owns, manages and reports for Maryland Sports Access, where he covers many beats, including Maryland high school sports, college basketball and college football. He’s also a freelance sports journalist for The Baltimore Sun and The Frederick News-Post, covering colleges and high schools.