A Gatorade shower for a coach following a game at any level usually signifies a victory celebration is coming.
For the Father Judge soccer team, giving head coach John Dunlop one more unexpected bath on a cool early November evening was more of a sign of appreciation.
The Crusaders entered Tuesday night’s PIAA Class AAA first round state playoff contest with West Chester Rustin as heavy favorites; unfortunately for Dunlop and his 14 seniors that brought Judge Catholic League and District 12 city titles this season, they trudged off the field defeated in a 1-0 loss.
The result was a colossal disappointment for the Crusaders, who never really looked like the team that won 20 of its 21 games prior to this night, many in dominant fashion. There would be no repeat of 2009 — when Judge was crowned co-champs of the state with Central Dauphin — but Dunlop tried to keep things in perspective when addressing his team afterward. If the Gatorade shower in the low-mid 40’s was any indication, the message was received by his veteran team.
“I told them that 20-2, a Catholic League championship and a city championship was something to really be proud of,” Dunlop said, his hair and fleece still saturated with the contents of the cooler. “That 2009 team was a special team, and it’s hard to repeat the things you do in life. It’s a difficult thing to do, a difficult process, and we played a very well-coached and well-prepared team.
“A group of seniors like we had, they’re classy and professional, and good examples for the the younger guys coming through the program. It will take a bit of time to digest what we accomplished, but you have to keep it positive. They have to remember what they’ve done for this community and the entire school.”
It was just a week earlier that an overflow crowd at Archbishop Ryan’s George Todt Field greeted the Crusaders for a raucous on-field celebration following the 3-1 victory over Lansdale Catholic that brought the school a coveted league title (the Crusaders had fallen in the title game in 2011 and 2012). Judge fans and students took turns lifting Dunlop and seniors like Joey Hansen and Ryan Nork on top of an enormous celebratory pile.
This time, at Northeast’s Charles Martin Stadium, there were no such joyous gestures. Judge’s spectators were kept mostly in check, except when they were voicing their displeasure with the officials, who handed out three second half yellow cards to Hansen, Geoff Degnan and David Rodriguez — all Judge seniors.
The feared Judge offense, led by the tandem of Nork and Hansen (both La Salle University commits), was methodically shut down by Rustin’s defense all night. Whenever the Crusaders applied pressure, the Golden Knights (17-6) had an answer. So it was Rustin senior midfielder Jay Ringer’s goal — a flick off the toe inside the Judge goalmouth that slipped past keeper Danny Sulpizio — in the 26th minute of the first half that proved to be the difference.
“They took a lot of the middle away from Nork and Hansen, which we kind of expected,” Dunlop said. “It wasn’t our best game, but when you get to this level you play teams that are just as good as you, and sometimes it’s just luck with the way the ball bounces.”
There’s no getting around the fact that Judge will look very different in 2014. High school athletics are cyclical in nature; freshmen eventually become seniors, leaving coaches with the challenge of having to replace irreplaceable players each and every year. For Dunlop, this task will be especially difficult, given the quality of this year’s senior class both on and off the field.
“It’s been my pleasure, and I appreciate everything they’ve done for us,” Dunlop said. “It’s been a lot of fun. The relationships we built were built for life. It’s been really special for me to be a part of something like this. We’ve been to five league championships in the last seven years, and these seniors have been to three of them. Some people might call it a dynasty … me, I’m just proud of them, to see these kids come in as boys and leave as young men with what they’ve done in the classroom and on the field … I’m one of the happiest coaches around, and I’m blessed to be in this situation.”
Dunlop made sure to hug each and every senior following the loss, and he thanked all of his players “from the bottom of my heart.” He also acknowledged the result being “a tough one to swallow, and I understand that,” but Dunlop told his team to really think about what they accomplished as a group as they move forward with their lives.
“It is sad that it has to end,” he admitted. “But I think they’ll realize when they wake up that they’re leaving with a great backbone of academics and athletics that will prepare them for the next four years, as well as the rest of their lives to come. We play this game for the love of it and the relationships we build, and all of that is going to last.”