Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tangled Up in Blue: My Journey With the Blue Devils

Photo cred: Conrad Akier

I groggily slipped out of bed last Tuesday morning after four hours of sleep, the irregular kind where no actual sleep takes place. My phone rang at 6:20 a.m., and I made a mad dash to answer as to not awaken my roommate. "We're still working on the newspaper," said Conrad, and to this I replied, "Yeah you better hurry up. We have to meet the team at 6:45 a.m. to board the bus."

Shuffling out of my residence hall into the early dawn light, I struggled with my annoyingly heavy bag all the way to Kaiser Gym, where I watched Conrad, who hadn't slept in 24 hours, strain with his three enormous bags up the four sets of stairs adjacent to the building.

Walking together to the opposite side of the building, we boarded a charter bus. Not just any charter bus, but one filled with 30 of the most athletic, talented group of soccer players ever to grace Central's campus, more notably known as Blue Devils. The boys were on their way to Oklahoma to challenge the University of Tulsa Wednesday evening in their second NCAA tournament match-up.

The team showed signs of an exuberant post-game high from reigning victorious over Harvard three days prior, when the Crimson put up a tough battle on their home turf until the very last second in their first NCAA match. It was the men's first time in history advancing in the NCAA tournament, and they were doing it in style: a bus ride to the tarmac where their private jet was sitting and ready to take off.

On the bus ride to the airport, Conrad and Head Coach Shaun Green exchanged conversation about our coverage of the team. Conrad handed Green hot-off-the-press pages of the Monmouth and Harvard victories, and Green practically beamed as he looked at them. He repeatedly told Conrad he could win awards with the photos he took of the team.

As the team exited the bus in a single-file line onto the tarmac, they huddled together in a group aside the plane and Conrad took his first photos of the trip. The teammates' pumped their fists in the air, excitedly cheering and goofing off as they hopped up the plane's foldout step stool of a ladder.

"Can we have a coloring book back here for the little boy?" jeered junior Captains David Tyrie of Norwich-Norfolk, England and Yan Klukowski of Wiltshire, England. They were sitting directly behind Conrad and I, and were poking fun of their freshman teammate, Connor Smith of Burnley, England. Being the jesters of the plane, they asked for alcoholic beverages and gave the stewardess quite the time when asked if they were willing to perform the duties necessary to be sitting in the emergency exit row seats. After take off, the plane grew silent as most found the flight to be a perfect opportunity to catch up on lost sleep.

"We will be landing in Dayton, Ohio to refuel," said the stewardess over the intercom an hour or so later. My face lit up like a light bulb; I grew up in Dayton for the first 11 years of my life. As we were landing, the boys looked out the window, making remarks about the flat, brown, desolate fields, calling it 'farm country.' It's not that they were wrong in saying that, it was true. Having lived there, it made me chuckle.

After swiping a copy of the Dayton Daily News and another round of tarmac-picture taking with Conrad, we were on our way to our final destination. I amused myself for the rest of the flight by drawing cartoons of soccer players and handed them to Coach Green who sat in front of me. He passed them around to the rest of the boys and drew his own picture of the team as little stick figures holding the NEC trophy above their heads. After having survived a trail mix food fight and drinking my weight in carbonated soda and water, we touched down in the Sooner state.

Tulsa was a complete change of scenery. As we boarded the bus and drove through downtown, the city seemed to be stuck in the 1960s. Bystanders would wave, highways were large but calm; people seemed to take their time. Once our bus conquered some agitating road construction and orange cones, we settled into the Doubletree Hotel, where they welcomed us with warm freshly baked cookies, which is a tradition the hotel has had for years, apparently.

Conrad and I checked our itinerary, and it was time to 'chillax.' Coach Green lives by this word, and in the itinerary it indicated downtime, so we laid in our king-sized comfortable bed and watched Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United score the final blow to Sporting Lisbon on ESPN. As we boarded the bus for dinner, Ronaldo's victorious goal was the talk of the team. One or two boys asked, "Did you see it?" while others responded in detail of their thoughts on it. It was a mere ounce of insight to their involvement with soccer outside of their own team.

After chowing down on some nice rib eyes and silently giggling at the waiters saying 'pop' instead of soda, we stopped back at the hotel so the guys could pick up their warm-up gear and it was off to practice at University of Tulsa's soccer complex. Riding into campus we noticed their facilities were astonishing. "This is the biggest pitch you guys have ever played on," said Green to his players.

Watching the practice made Conrad and I want to kick a ball around, so whenever the ball came sailing our way, we'd retrieve it and kick it back. "You must be good at soccer," Flavio Simao said as my ball seemed to land perfectly in front of one of the players. "Not really," I said. "I played from first to eighth grade, and that's it."

Simao's job was to warm-up the guys by making them run back and forth across the pitch, making them twist, turn, jump and pounce. Donning orange, blue and yellow jerseys, they also practiced defending, passing and communicating to one another. Christian Benjamin, assistant coach of the Blue Devils, cranked out some shots directed towards Central goalkeeper Paul Armstrong, who blocked them with consistency and ease.

Once we returned back to the hotel for the night, Conrad and I bought a couple rounds of beers and talked with the coaching staff. "Whether or not we win tomorrow night, we'll be celebrating. It's my birthday on Thursday," said Green. "But we will win."

Indeed the next day would be an unforgettable one.

After getting a rousing 10 hours of sleep, I woke up at eight in the morning feeling refreshed. I ate breakfast with the coaches sans Conrad and the entire team, because obviously no one felt like waking up. I took part in a quick hour trip to the mall, where the players ate lunch at the food court and the team's athletic director Elizabeth Kane and I spent money we didn't really have. On the way back, we watched the American football movie Friday Night Lights on the bus, but had to stop it short of the last 10 minutes.

When I returned to room 320, Conrad had finally awoken. We scurried down to the hotel lobby for a pre-game briefing from Coach Green. "They don't know us, we don't know them," said Green to his players. "Tulsa hasn't played since November 18; they've had a rest for 10 days."

Central however, was prepared. They had played Harvard the Saturday prior, and had practiced every day. "These teams have not been through what we've been through," he reminded his team. Having grabbed a hold of some Tulsa game videos the night before, Coach Green had analyzed and recognized some of Tulsa's key players to focus on each of their abilities so his team would know who to watch out for.

"We need to be committed to defending," Green reminded his team. "When they get the ball, we need to keep our block. Don't mistake their possession for dominance. Keeping our shape is crucial to the game."

We had arrived to Tulsa's soccer complex early, and the team was eager to finish the rest of Friday Night Lights. Suspense was building as the Permian Panthers had less than a half a minute on the clock to score, and then, Blue Devils assistant coach Paul Wright abruptly turned off the movie. "Let's go you guys," he said, as he ushered the team off of the bus.

The Central Connecticut Blue Devils began warming up as the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes began to arrive at the pitch. Tulsa fans were filing in, and the officials were expecting a crowd of two thousand. When I finally reached my seat alongside the field, the players from each team lined up midfield for the National Anthem. Tulsa reacted to Central as they probably did with the 12 previous teams, but little did they know they were in for a treat.

The first 15 minutes were like a meet and greet; the teams were playing footsie under the table, slowly warming up to each other. The icebreaker came five minutes later when a Golden Hurricane blinded Central goalkeeper Paul Armstrong from saving the ball. Tulsa fans erupted with shrills and screams.

It was time to show Tulsa what they were missing on the East Coast.

Less than two minutes later, Yan Klukowski sank the ball in past Tulsa's 6-foot-4 goalkeeper Dominic Cervi from 16 yards away. The first half ended with a 1-1 tie.

During half-time, Coach Green gave the Blue Devils a pep talk.

"This is for your family, friends and colleagues back home. This is for all the other little state schools!" Green yelled. He pointed out that Tulsa was playing sloppy. "We are playing better than them. Keep it up!"

In the 48th minute of the game, Klukowski set forward Johan Rundquist up for a brilliant header into the goal. A half an hour later, Tulsa's Cervi sauntered his way out of the net. Connor Smith took advantage of the goalie's mistake and beat him to the net with a finger breaking performance, literally. With nine minutes left and a leading 3-1, it was practically gift-wrapped, sent with love and care from the Golden Hurricanes.

Not really. Fans were growling, screaming, calling each and every call against their team blasphemous. Never before had they ever seen their team teeter on the edge of defeat. Tulsa was rewarded a penalty kick with five minutes to spare and succeeded, but did not halt the performance of Central's players, for they persevered till the very last second. The final score of 3-2 shimmered on the Hurricane's giant scoreboard.

Fans grimaced and Tulsa players sat in disbelief, dumbfounded, as the Blue Devils, coaching staff and player's parents rushed the field to hug each other, screaming, "We're in the sweet 16!"

After Conrad photographed the team in front of the scoreboard, players were on their cell-phones, telling relatives and friends of their success. Coach Green yelled, "Thank God for cell-phones and computers!" as he was barraged with one phone call after the next. Overhearing some of the players ask why we hadn't finished Friday Night Lights, assistant coach Paul Wright said, "Because they lose at the end! I didn't want you guys to see that before the game!"

Driving back to the Doubletree, the entire bus rang out in celebration. Teammates joined their voices in stunning renditions of 'Build Me Up, Buttercup' and 'Don't Stop Believing,' as Coach Green and Simao danced standing up in the middle of the bus.

Once we arrived and settled back in, beers and cheers filled the hotel bar. A cowboy hat was given to Green for his birthday, and I had given him a birthday card I had purchased the previous day with the entire teams signatures inside. The best birthday present Green had received, was the victory. "Thank you guys," Green said as he lifted a glass of cabernet in his hand.

As we lifted off the ground from Tulsa the next morning, Conrad and I had the distinct pleasure of sitting behind the jesters again. "Now I know where I'm spending my summer holiday," Tyrie exclaimed sarcastically as he pointed down at one of the cookie cutter houses. "And it starts with a T!"

Mother Nature decided upon an unfortunate time to swallow New England in a blustery chill as the Blue Devils returned to prepare for their next NCAA endeavor against University of Massachusetts, who had overpowered top-seeded Boston College the same day Central had conquered Tulsa.

Amherst, Massachusetts was an unlucky place to be on that fateful Sunday afternoon, as University of Massachusett's Rudd Field was a frozen solid ice rink. Ten minutes into the first half, officials stopped the game due to players slipping and sliding. After discussing all possible solutions the game continued an hour later, and after playing their hearts out, Central simply couldn't stop UMass from triumphing. The Blue Devils' season had ended in a snowy haze.

Seniors Andrew Cooper and Jonathan Agbatar hung their heads, visibly melancholy about the outcome, and that it was their final run-around with their Blue Devil squad. "We're going to miss them," said Coach Green as he spoke highly of his seniors. "It's going to be hard to fill their boots next season."

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