Back in early May, Western Albemarle boys soccer had to do some soul searching.
“I felt like the life was kind of stripped out of us,” said Western Albemarle senior Sam Vigilante.
The Warriors had lost back-to-back games to Charlottesville and Albemarle and the problems went deeper than a couple of losses to two very talented rivals.
“We had a midseason crisis where it became evident that we weren’t really a team,” said Western coach Milo Oakland. “We weren’t doing the intangible things needed to win.”
In the wake of that realization, Western had some different paths they could go down. The Warriors could have rolled over at that point. They could’ve stayed the course and tried to get by on what they were.
They chose instead to transform themselves.
“We had to kind of hunker down and put in the work — it was a lot of sacrifice for each other that was very necessary to get to this point,” said Western senior Keaton Gumlock
This point is Gumlock and company celebrating a Class 4 state championship. When Cullen Webster stuffed the sixth penalty kick try by Jefferson Forest — his third save of the shootout — and then senior Will Graham knocked it home in the top left corner to lift the Warriors to a 3-2 win and the state title.
“I have a routine, where I take a few deep breaths, I take my time, get up there and just hit it,” Graham said.
He hit it pure, his second goal of the shootout. And then he held his hand up and waited for Webster and then the entire squad of Warriors to envelop him and celebrate perhaps the most unlikely of state titles, especially with the spot Western was in back on May 5th.
“We were ready to go to war with each other and it was just really special that Will was the one who hit the PK,” said Gumlock, who Oakland called the emotional engine of the squad. “I’ve known him for a long time and played with him for close to eight years and I was just really proud of him.”
Even getting to that shootout was a struggle for the Warriors. They went down twice in the match, first at 1-0 — Western’s Jamey Williamson erased that deficit with a header goal with four minutes left in the first half — and then at 2-1 with just 20:44 left to play in the match. Western didn’t panic at being down again. Instead Alex Keeton put together an incredible individual effort to notch the equalizer, fighting and clawing for his fourth goal of the state tournament with just under 16 minutes to play.
That, and 20 minutes of scoreless overtime soccer set the stage for the shootout. Graham, Keeton and Garrett Kane scored during the first five PKs and Jefferson Forest also scored on three of five chances. That sent the match to sudden death PKs and put Webster, the Warriors’ keeper, in a pressure-packed situation. Or so it seemed, because for his part Webster was unfazed.
“I was enjoying it and I’m not just making that up, I was really just enjoying myself there,” Webster said. “That’s what helped me have the confidence there to make those saves.”
That relaxed approach worked well. Webster dove to his right and stuffed the shot from Jefferson Forest, setting up Graham’s chance to clinch the match.
In the aftermath of the win, Oakland let his team know that he decided to step down as head coach, ending his seven year run with three state titles as a head coach while serving as an assistant coach on the 2014 state title squad. Knowing that made Oakland pretty emotional as the team celebrated and then collected their trophy and medals.
“The pressure of the game and the season by itself would’ve been a lot but I’ve been holding on to this the whole season, it’s been a decision I made about a year ago now,” Oakland said. “The coaches knew, but we’ve been trying to keep the team focused and working hard, but holding that in, it just kind of came out at the end.”
But Saturday for Oakland was about what this year’s squad’s seniors — Kane, Gumlock, Vigilante, Graham, Gavin Harris and Embry Pulich — accomplished, bringing together a fractured team over the course of the last month of the season to pull off a state championship.
“I asked these guys to step up and bring the team together and we became a team,” Oakland said. “It’s been amazing watching how close and tight they’ve been from the seniors all the way down to the plethora of underclassmen that we have. They had to bring a wide age group together and get them all to believe in a single cause. They deserve all the credit.”