Getting close to 60 minutes into his team’s game at Northern on Tuesday night, La Plata head boys soccer coach Chris Butler had seen enough.
Butler’s Warriors were trailing 4-0 and were not showing many signs of life. So he emptied the bench.
With many second-string players on the field, La Plata finally scored. Then the Warriors scored again, and again, and finally with just a couple minutes left in regulation finally tied the game.
Then, in the second overtime period, J.D. Santiago converted on a penalty kick to complete the improbable comeback, lifting La Plata to a 5-4 win in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference crossover game.
“It’s an awesome victory, one that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced,” Butler said. “I told them, I’ve come back and had games where we came back from two, three goals before, but never have I come back from four goals down after clearing the bench.”
After the lethargic 60 minutes, there was no question about what needed to be done on La Plata’s side.
“We just knew we had to step it up,” Warriors goalkeeper Nick Meadows said. “The boys that came off the bench knew they had to play with intensity. They did what they to do.”
Northern (0-1 overall) had taken command in the first half on a pair of Ben Pigg goals, the first roughly 10 minutes in and the second on a penalty kick with close to five minutes remaining in the half. The Patriots added to their advantage three minutes into the second half on a Justin Evans marker, then extended the lead to a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 on Ryan Pigg’s goal close to six minutes later.
It took close to 10 more minutes before Ethan Trani found the net to get La Plata (1-0 overall) on the board, seemingly just allowing his team to avoid being shut out. But a Santiago penalty kick pulled the Warriors to within 4-2, and David Strong’s goal with close to 13 minutes remaining in regulation pulled the visitors to within one.
Owen Butler then put one into the net late in the half to force overtime. At that point, in Meadows’ mind, there was no reason for the Warriors to leave Northern without a win.
“We got four goals to get here, so why can’t we just win?” the goalie said. “Coach said, ‘Tying this game would be the greatest comeback story ever.’ I said, ‘Why not win it?’ Might as well finish it.”
And, after playing through a scoreless 10-minute overtime period, La Plata did just that when Santiago converted a penalty kick just a couple minutes into the second session, thus capping perhaps the greatest comeback Butler had ever enjoyed in his long coaching career.
It also provided a great lesson to his team, regardless of where they were when the game concluded.
“I’m so excited for the guys that were on the field when they pulled that off,” Butler said. “I’ve been questioning my starters’ desire and fire and heart and want to win. They’ve got all the skills in the world and are a very good team, but they don’t bring it. So when it was 4-0, I said, ‘It’s time to give these other guys a chance.’
“The guys that are supposedly my second string scored five goals tonight in 35 minutes or less. Because they want it. I told the guys at halftime, ‘Northern wants it. They’re flying all over the field. They’re slide-tackling, winning balls in the air.’ My guys are going, ‘Let’s make some nice passes’ and [Northern] is flying all over the field. They still didn’t do it in the second half until I put my supposed second-stringers in and they score five goals. That’s a lesson learned. All the skill in the world can’t beat heart. ... I’m so proud of them. [Northern] is a great team. They dominated us. They dominated for 60 minutes and somehow we pulled off the victory, heart and desire.”
With 20 minutes to play, Northern appeared to have its first victory of the season in the book. Unfortunately for the Patriots, the rest of the game did not follow the same script, leaving the team to try to regroup. Northern was scheduled to play at Lackey on Thursday night and is next slated to play at Bel Air in Harford County on Sept. 18.
“It’s the game of soccer for you,” Patriots head coach John Rossi said. “I thought we played brilliant at times and I think we saw the best of Northern and the worst of Northern. We just have to be more consistent and play at that top level. Once we drop down, we invited too many chances and they finished them. They’re a good team. They had an outstanding comeback. We just have to take it and use it as motivation and try to get better from here.”
As La Plata started to head to its bus, the emotions were completely flipped from just a short time earlier when Butler wondered how he could manage to keep his team together after what looked to be a devastating season-opening loss. Now the Warriors, who are scheduled to host defending SMAC champion Leonardtown at 6 tonight, have momentum on their side.
“When it was 4-0 I was thinking to myself, ‘How am I going to get this team regrouped for the season?’” Butler said. “It can be a season-ender when you go out and lose 4-0. They’re good, but we have just as good of players, we’re just not showing it. Now it’s a complete flip of emotion and we’re going to use this as a springboard to propel us. We have Leonardtown on Friday, and if they learned the lesson that the supposed second stringers learned, then there aren’t too many teams that can beat us.”
“There’s no better feeling,” added Meadows. “We have a big game on Friday. We just have to do our thing, come out with intensity and the rest of the season is ours.”