Three years ago, Wilson proved it was a community that never quits when a house explosion killed student Sarah Johnson, and it has proved itself once again with the Girls varsity soccer team’s recent run at the NYSPHSAA Class B State Championship in Cortland.
The team had won the league title for the past four years, but after losing several seniors last year, Coach Tom Baia was unsure of how the young team would perform this season. But he noticed early on the team’s defiant nature, perseverance and sense of teamwork.
The girls quickly proved that they had “something that you can’t coach, it’s just an internal strength to work together and never point fingers at each other,” said Baia.
The road to the state finals was long, but the team decided early on that they would play for Sarah, who would have been a senior on the team this year.
“That was kind of the whole thing this entire season, that every game was for her,” said junior Emily Paterson.
The team, including Baia, wore yellow ribbons and nail polish – Sarah’s favorite color – at both of the games in Cortland. And on the team’s senior night, yellow balloons were released to honor Sarah’s memory.
“I see a lot of Sarah’s qualities in a lot of the girls who she played with, like her love of life, her goofiness, her innocence,” said Baia.
Playing for Sarah gave the girls a “sense of purpose” and helped them to work harder not only for the team, but for her, too.
Before heading off to Cortland on Nov. 13, the girls were surprised with a pep assembly that had been days in the making by Baia and administrators. Students, teachers, parents, administrators and alums of the team, totaling about 500 people, came out to cheer the girls on before they left, leaving them anxious to play.
“I wanted our first game to be that day because I was so pumped,” Emily said.
The girls played in the semifinal game the next day against Center Moriches, which managed to get in a goal after a long period when the teams were tied at 0.
It had been a dark day in Cortland with a little bit of snow, but the sky opened up just before Emily managed to sneak in a goal in overtime to tie it up, giving Wilson hope that eventually led to a 4-2 win in a shootout.
“It was dark the whole game except for that part,” said senior and captain Leah Herman.
“There were some freaky things that happened,” said Baia. Not only did the sky open up before Emily’s goal, but what would have been a perfect shot by the opposing team managed to hit the goal post, and on Sunday, which would have been Sarah’s 18th birthday, it was warm and sunny.
“I wouldn’t have ever believed in anything like that until I was a part of it. I think that’s part of the reason why everyone was so moved, you could feel it,” Baia said.
By that time, Wilson fans in the stands numbered in the hundreds. Sarah’s mom, Judy Johnson, came out to support the team, but there were others in the stands who had no knowledge about soccer who were eager to be supportive and had driven three hours to see the girls play.
The few fans left at home were able to keep up with what was happening in Cortland through Twitter, as athletic director Jeff Roth posted frequent updates that had much of the community refreshing their social media feeds every few seconds.
Many community members who came out to cheer on the girls gathered in the hotel lobby with the team as they listened to Sarah’s mom speak on Sunday morning, just before the finals game.
She gave the girls a pep talk that ended with a lot of tears from the majority of those in the room. She prayed with the team and told them that she could feel Sarah’s presence.
“It just meant so much to her family that she was able to be here with us, and you know it really wasn’t just us, it was our whole community at the hotel lobby and so it was kind of like everyone was there for (Sarah) on her birthday,” said Baia.
The team had a goal of playing on Sarah’s birthday the whole season, and were happy that they were able to honor her in that way.
Wilson knew going in that the finals game was going to be a tall order, as opponent Schalmont from the Albany area was 23-0 and had outscored teams 147-11. Wilson was able to hold their own for 70 minutes of league play, but with just 9:30 left, Schalmont managed to score.
“Until that point, I really thought we could still win, even having been that overmatched,” said Baia. “I thought the Sarah angle was going to take us because with 9:30 left, that’s basically what happened the day before.”
Unfortunately for Wilson, another goal was given up in the last five minutes when Wilson goalie Emily Kelly was briefly taken out, and Schalmont claimed the state title.
Despite the loss, the team finished the season 20-3 and was able to claim several titles of its own, including the Niagara-Orleans League title, Section VI title, Far West Regionals title and second in the state. Captain and senior Zipporah Barrett received the Most Outstanding Player Award, and sophomore Emily Kelly, described as a “brick wall” by one of her teammates, was named the Most Outstanding Goalkeeper in the state tournament, after she made a total of 39 saves in the weekend of the tournament alone.
As is a Wilson tradition when it comes to state teams, the girls were escorted by fire trucks back to the school, where more than 200 people were waiting in the parking lot. As they got off the bus, cheers of “we are proud of you” echoed over the crowd.
“We knew fire trucks were going to escort us, but we did not know that many. I was expecting one or two,” said senior and captain Lauren Couturier.
“I still don’t think we understand what we just did,” said junior Jennifer Darlak.
“You hear people talk about state titles and stuff and you think that you’re never gonna get that, but we were right there, we were that close to doing it,” Leah said. “You never imagine making it that far.”
Anna Kane is a senior at Wilson High School.
“That was kind of the whole thing this entire season, that every game was for her.” – Emily Paterson, junior