In the moments following last Wednesday’s Public League soccer championship game, George Chavez was crying his eyes out.
He couldn’t have been happier.
For Northeast High School’s boys’ soccer club, the third time was most definitely the charm. After losing the championship games in 2010 and 2011, it was the Vikings’ time. And it tasted especially sweet for this Northeast team, winning on their home turf for retiring coach Sam Feldman.
To get there, they had to get past the only two teams they hadn’t beaten during the regular season; first up, a 3-0 victory over defending champion George Washington in the semifinals, then, a 1-0 championship clincher over Franklin Towne Charter, thanks to Andy Jean-Pierre’s goal (his 20th of the season) with 14:05 left in regulation.
They also had to do it by unexpectedly thrusting Chavez — a junior captain and feared goal-scorer — into the role of goaltender after starting keeper Kris Isaku injured his back in the team’s quarterfinals win over Samuel Fels. Chavez, who hadn’t played goalie all season, responded with two shutouts against two of the best teams in the Public League.
“Since I was a little kid, I don’t know why, but I was inspired to play keeper,” Chavez said through sniffles, his eyes still red with fresh tears. “When our keeper went down, someone had to step up. I figured I didn’t have the experience, but I was determined to take over that spot.”
Chavez’s teammates marveled at his play between the posts in such a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“I can’t say enough about Georgie,” said senior captain Chris Black. “He never played goalie before, and he gets two shutouts against those two teams … there’s just no words I can say to justify this moment.”
Added Jean-Pierre with a sly smile: “I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know if he was good in goal, but he played so well.”
And as much as it meant the world for Chavez to win himself a title after two failed attempts, it meant so much more to win one for the departing Feldman, whose only other soccer championship came in 2007 (Feldman is also the school’s baseball coach).
“Oh my God, I’m so happy for him,” Chavez said. “I can’t wait to get to the locker room and give him a big hug. He brought us here. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Feldman, in typical fashion, didn’t want the moment to be about him. He has always maintained that coaching good kids that are fun to be around is all he cares about, not the championships and individual accolades. But now, on this day, he could have both, having won it all with one of the favorite groups he’s ever had the pleasure of coaching.
“You know, I’ve not won it a lot of times, in soccer and baseball, so this one’s a relief,” he said. “I felt very good about this one. Most of them have been here twice before, so they weren’t a deer in headlights. They’re veterans, and they delivered.”
The win earned the Vikings the right to stay together as a team for a few more days, and even though they lost 4-0 to Catholic League champ La Salle in Friday’s District 12 city championship game, that’s not what this Northeast team will remember about this special season.
“When you win a championship, the team remembers each other,” Black said. “That’s definitely true, no doubt. These guys will remember each other forever.”
In the end, nothing could slow down a Vikings team that was clearly on a mission from the moment the playoffs started. Not only did they lose Isaku in net, but Northeast also played the title game without starting sweeper Matt Feinstein (who Feldman called “the team’s best defender, the guy who controls it all back there”), who was out sick with mononucleosis. Just as Chavez did in net, senior Tyler Gormley shifted to a new position and performed admirably.
Bench players, who hadn’t seen significant playing time all season, were suddenly thrown into starting roles. Just as they had all season, Northeast held strong.
“I know there’s the city championship and state tournament and all that, but this right here is what you play for,” Black said. “It doesn’t get much bigger than this.”
And although they’re champions, Northeast’s ride doesn’t end just yet.
Feldman spoke of a showcase tournament on Thanksgiving weekend for high school seniors looking to gain the attention of scouts at the next level.
As Feldman pointed out, “We’re a senior-heavy team, so we have to try to get some of these guys into college. It doesn’t end now.”
And then there’s the team’s annual end-of-season pizza party, which will be unlike any Feldman has experienced before.
“Well, for starters, it’s my last one,” he said. “And it’s celebrating a championship team, so it won’t be just any pizza party. I’ll make sure to empty my soccer account for this team.”
In the end, this was a happy story with a happy ending. It doesn’t always work out that way, but this time it did, and every single member of the Northeast soccer family was as elated as can be.
“All the hard work, and now we’ve got the championship,” Chavez said. “It means a lot, it really does. It shows the hard work really did pay off. I’m just happy, man.” ••
For extended playoff soccer coverage and to read about how the Archbishop Ryan and Franklin Towne girls teams became champions, visit www.bsmphilly.com/sports
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org