Small-town sports exemplified by Greenville soccer

GREENVILLE, NEW YORK–The Greenville Spartans boys soccer team was engaged in an intense playoff battle against Mekeel Christian Academy this Saturday when a loud gunshot rung out.

You would expect mass hysteria to ensue, but no one in the stands or on the field even bothered to bat an eye.

Everyone in the stands knew immediately what it was; just the local hunters looking for their first big game of the season in the woods just adjacent to the field.

Greenville high school soccer is in some ways the epitome of small-town high school sports. The team plays on the top of a hill just outside of the main school building. The big renovation that has been done since I graduated GCS in 2010 is to add a small netted fence behind the goal to try and stop the balls from rolling all the way down the hill when kicked over the goal.

The field quite literally borders a horse stable and a corn field on one end, while that Catskill Mountains tower over the other. The pitch is worn and uneven, and playing soccer on it seems out of place and slightly dangerous. Because of its altitude, the field always attracts a bigger wind and colder temperatures than you would see on lower ground.

It’s a school with little to no tradition in sports of any kind. Many of Greenville’s sporting teams are annually among the worst teams in the Patroon Conference. It’s basketball team hasn’t had a winning season in at least a decade. Its track and tennis teams have to play all road games since they don’t have an operating track in good enough condition, or enough tennis courts to hold home matches. It is the only school in its county without a football team.

Yet, for some reason, the soccer teams always seem to have a level success not associated with any other sport at Greenville. This year, the boy’s team won their conference and allowed only four goals all season long, earning a number two seed in the Class C Sectional Playoffs. On Saturday, they were set to being their playoff run with hopes of a championship within their grasp.

***

The top of the hill has only two metal bleachers for spectators to sit and enjoy the game. On this particular Saturday, they were both filled to capacity, while other fans were forced to bring their own lawn chairs or stand if they wanted to see the action.

One section was filled entirely with GCS students, because on a Saturday afternoon in October, what is there better to do in Greenville than watch a high school soccer game?

While I was sitting on the top row of the bleachers next to the student section, a young girl asked a cheering fan “how do you know all of the players? “Because I go to school with all of them,” she replied, “and they’re all my friends.”

It’s the sense of community you wouldn’t get in a school with 500 students in a graduating class, and it raised the stakes for the players. Fans weren’t just cheering for their school emblem and colors, they were cheering for their friends, classmates, brothers, and sons. Everyone knows everyone in Greenville; literally.

***

One would take it that if you brought a fan who had never seen a soccer game before and knew nothing of the rules to Greenville last Saturday afternoon, they still would have an idea when to pay attention.

Soccer is unique in that unlike baseball, basketball, or even football, the crowd can quite easily see when a potential scoring play is about to happen. When the ball is in the midfield, the crowd resigns themselves to relative boredom, occupying their time with random “GCS” chants or even some useful tips to the players such as “make better passes!” and “control the ball!”

But when either side starts to bring the ball into their attacking zone, the crowd slowly builds a crescendo. When the visitors would get close to scoring a goal, the anxiety built amongst the crowd as they desperately attempted to will the ball away from the goal with their screaming.

When Meekel Christian’s Jordan Ahlquist hammered a strike into the back of the net early in the first half, the crowd was deflated. Aside from a small section on the far end of supporters of the visiting team, the entire spectator sideline was silent.

And yet every time Greenville would come close to scoring, the crowd noise would slowly, but surely, build up. At first a soft whisper, then a moderate discourse, until finally a desperate, full volume screech. When the home team failed to score, their efforts were always met with a loud “ahhhhh” in unison.

“Any time fans come out, it’s a really great thing” remarked Greenville Head Coach Nathan Forrest after the game. “They swing with the momentum of the game, and that can be a really good thing and it can also sometimes hurt… luckily they came out and even when we did get down they continued to cheer, they continued to support, they continued to get guys fired up and push them forward.”

When Tyler Biernacki tied the game for the home team late in the second half, the fans were finally rewarded for their efforts. Whether or not they actually influenced the goal at all or not, they could at least feel like they contributed.

***

As the game headed into overtime, no one in the audience quite knew the rules. “In girls they play two ten minute halves no matter what!” yelled one confident parent. “In the regular season they would end in a tie, but this time they have to play to a winner!” yelled another, stating the obvious for a playoff game.

It was determined by a majority vote that the teams would play to sudden death, and there was a small gasp of fear when the referee confirmed it. The fans knew that one bad mistake could cost their beloved Spartans everything.

In an effort to boost them up, the fans upped from their seats for the overtime session. The once filled bleachers had now been depleted, but the number of fans that began the game remained the same. Instead, the students adopted a new strategy: chasing the ball down from one end to the other.

Like a crowd would do at a golf tournament, the crowd followed the ball everywhere it went, while the visiting fans became more than a little perturbed by the home fans’ unusual antics.

When forward Sam Statham’s shot edged just past Mekeel Christian goalie Jacob Khaler’s outstretched arms and into the net, the fans cheered, but more-so breathed a collective sigh of relief. Their team had survived to live another day.

***

After the teams shook hands and the visiting fans left to console their heartbroken teenagers, the Greenville fans took their traditional lap to and back from sideline-to-sideline. As they approached, the fans cheered and clapped one last time as they got set to go on with their day.

As I was leaving the field, one parent asked another, “So the next one is Monday right?” “Yes sir, same time same place.” “Great, see you then,” he remarked, go Spartans!”

Maybe there is something special about Greenville’s crowd this Saturday, but probably not. I would venture a guess that if you drove all across the state this weekend, you would find several instances of similarity.

Small-time high school sports like Greenville soccer won’t ever get the glitz and glamor of the pros or even the college level, but that doesn’t make their fans any less passionate, their athletes less valiant, or the games any less fun.

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