Reflections on a special 2018 postseason

Warren’s Kyra Wotorson (25) and her teammates celebrate her go-ahead goal against Hickory in the second half of the District 10 Class 3A girls soccer championship game at a rainy Franklin High School. Wotorson and the Lady Dragons came up just short of the D-10 crown, but were part of what was one of the most memorable postseasons for Warren County teams in recent memory.

It was a little bittersweet coming into the office Monday.

On one hand, it was a welcome opportunity to clean-up my desk, go through old emails and generally get caught up with work that had been set aside. To get that done; however, meant that the finality of an incredible ride was able to really sink in for the first time.

For the last month, we’ve been following Warren County teams around the region as they marched through the playoffs. While not unique in and of itself, county athletes/teams are often vying for district titles and berths in state meets/tournaments, this postseason just had a different feel to it.

For me, that feeling started with a thriller at Dollinger Field as Caleb Lindell buried a second half goal to give the Warren boys soccer team a 1-0 win over Fort LeBoeuf, the team’s first playoff win in three years. The following week, it was the Warren girls turn to erase recent playoff woes.

MJ Fadale and Sawyer Mohney each scored in the Dragons 2-0 District 10 semifinal win over Meadville, the team that had eliminated them from the postseason the previous two years. The goals were crucial, but it was the emotion that stood out most. The sudden realization on senior Mackenzie Bickling’s face as she looked to the scoreboard when the public address announcer began the 10-second countdown to end the game is something I’ll remember fondly.

Warren’s Griffin Suppa (10) and Caleb Lindell (14) celebrate Lindell’s goal in their District 10 Class 3A quarterfinal match against Fort LeBoeuf

It was at that moment I knew, something big was happening this playoff year.

Both soccer teams fell on consecutive nights. First, the boys battled a loaded Erie Cathedral Prep team. They were shutout, 5-0, but gave the Ramblers all they could handle and then some. Not ones to sulk in their sorrow, they turned right around to cheer on their sister squad as they looked to make history.

Once again, the Dragons played the role of underdog as they tried to capture the first D-10 title in program history. This time to a Hickory team that entered the game 18-1 and outscored its opponents 113-5. Despite all the hype the Hornets had coming in, it was the Dragons who finally found the back of the net as Kyra Wotorson scored with 23 minutes to play. Hickory answered quickly, then took advantage of a controversial penalty to net the game-winner. Still, the Lady Dragons had fought valiantly and their near-miss whet the appetite for what was to come.

With local soccer wrapped up, my playoff coverage moved exclusively indoors. Warren volleyball had already dispatched their D-10 quarterfinal opponent and was waiting to play a semifinal match as the soccer teams bowed out. These Lady Dragons got a measure of revenge for their soccer counterparts, dispatching Hickory in the D-10 semis just a day after that epic soccer match. That win put them back in the District 10 title game for the second straight year. It was exactly where many expected they’d be coming into the season, but now it was time to deliver.

That Saturday was already ‘a great day to be a Dragon,’ as Warren AD Jeff White is fond of tweeting following a big win, with Naomi Hahn racing to the medal stand at the PIAA state cross country meet that morning. As Andy and I made our way to Meadville, I spilled coffee on myself. A lot of coffee. Being somewhat superstitious, I thought this was definitely a bad omen. Thankfully, we were in the midst of legends, and legends don’t care about silly omens.

As the celebration ensued in the ‘House of Thrills,’ that ‘something big’ thought kept swirling in my head. Don’t get me wrong, this was big, but it still felt like there was more to come. A sweep in the first round of the state tournament was pretty cool, but one thought kept knawing at me.

“There’s something more coming.”

Sweep the state quarterfinals. Wow, ok now we’re getting there. A semifinal matchup with the defending state champ and winner of 48 straight matches. These ladies are good, but can they do something no Warren team had done in 18 years? Are we really shooting that big?

As the Dragons knocked off Knoch (no pun intended . . . oh, who am I kidding, that was absolutely on purpose), I knew we were in uncharted waters. It wasn’t just that they kept winning, but with each win, it seemed like more and more of Warren County was attending each match.

With a little time to reflect, that was what kept popping up in the back of my mind. The wins were great, and I’ll be honest, the impartiality that I try to bring to every team I cover went out the window by the time the postseason rolled around. These girls were just impossible not to cheer for. Not only were they so much fun to watch (as evidenced by the group of D-10 coaches/team reps I saw huddled together in Meadville marveling as Warren dispatched Central Valley), but they’re so genuine and likeable that they force people to get behind them.

I began to notice players and coaches from other county volleyball teams coming to the games. Then the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. By the time they met Knoch in the semifinal at Clarion, the gym was overflowing with Warren fans. And not just those associated with Warren Area High School, but people from all corners of Warren County.

The sendoff to Mechanicsburg had people lining the streets, despite snowy weather and a 2-hour delay for Warren County schools. They had so captured the community’s imagination that my 5-year-old daughter began asking when she could “go watch the ball girls play.”

The community was so eager to get to Cumberland Valley High School that they were lining the stands while the 2A title game finished. With more than 45 minutes to go before the game was set to begin, half the bleachers inside CVHS were full of Warren supporters.

Their homecoming may have been even more special. The team bus, with family vehicles in tow, got to Sheffield around 11 p.m. Sheffield Fire Department vehicles turned on lights and sirens and began an escort. Residents came out of their homes to greet the team and say, “thank you. We’re proud of you.” The escort picked up vehicles from Cherry Grove, Clarendon, Pleasant and Glade along the way. When some of those vehicles had to pull off after crossing the Glade bridge, Warren City was there to take their place.

Again, people were on the streets, at near midnight, to show their appreciation. A group of friends and family, and a pair of local sports reporters privileged enough to tag along for this magical ride, were waiting when the team departed the bus at WAHS. The first realization that this was coming to an end occurred to me as the final strains of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of your life)” echoed through the Joseph A. Massa gymnasium. There were thank you’s and hugs, and yes, a few tears as this amazing group of athletes and coaches took a moment to soak in their accomplishments.

Of course, they proved that they were one of Pennsylvania’s best teams. But they also brought an often divided community together. When they took the court last week, it wasn’t solely as Dragons. They were also Eagles, and Knights, and Bulldogs, and Lions, and Wolverines. They were representing all of us. And they did so with honor, integrity and class.

So as the clutter left my desk, the emails were checked and the work attended to, I couldn’t help but smile. A smile for what had just happened, but also for the future. As I thought about how great the fall has been, I couldn’t help but wonder as I looked ahead . . . who will take us for another ride as February turns to March? Winter sports, it’s your turn.

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