Commentary

Santa Fe lives the dream

Updated: May 20, 2009, 8:41 AM ET
By Sheldon Shealer | ESPNRISE.com

-- A teammate murdered
-- A season-opening victory over the defending state champion
-- A humiliating 8-1 loss to Tulsa (Okla.) Union High School
-- A dramatic, penalty-kick state title victory over that same Union squad

Welcome to the emotional roller coaster that is the Edmond (Okla.) Santa Fe High School boys' soccer team.

"With all the stress and pain, they developed the fight and the will," Santa Fe coach Joe Peeler said. "They did what they had to do to win."

[+] EnlargeDrew Schmid
Carol Shanahan for ESPN.comDrew Schmid went 5-1 in penalty kick finishes this year, the final victory gave Santa Fe a state title
Saturday afternoon, Santa Fe became the unlikeliest of state champions when Drew Hall's penalty kick clinched a shootout victory over heavily favored Union following a 1-1 draw through regulation and overtime in the Oklahoma Class 6A final. Only nine weeks earlier, Union pinned an 8-1 defeat on Santa Fe.

"It's really unbelievable," said Hall, a junior who scored the game-tying goal in regulation before sealing the upset. "It's every kid's dream -- to have the chance to score the game-winning touchdown, make the game-winning shot, score the game-winning goal. I got that opportunity. It was a feeling of disbelief when the ball went into the net."

"When he made it, I felt like we were the Cinderella team," said senior Will Okwuonu. "Tears started rushing from my eyes."

It was not the first time that members of Santa Fe's soccer team shed tears.

Many of the 14 senior members of this year's team were present on the first day of practice before the 2006 spring season, their freshman year, when Zack Eckels, then a senior, collapsed while jogging and died of a heart attack. Tragedy struck the program again this school year when senior Manuel Serrato was stabbed and died in October.

"We were very close," Okwuonu said of his friendship with Serrato. "It was devastating."

"That hit hard," senior goalkeeper Drew Schmid said of Serrato's death. "He was a player who worked hard in every practice, every game. Everyone fed off him. He was a good player to have on the team. It was emotional to lose him."

"We dedicated our season to him," Hall said. "We were going to play for him. We fueled the fire with thoughts of him."

Team members wore black armbands throughout the season with Serrato's name and jersey number.

Despite the loss, Santa Fe players thought a trip to the state final remained a realistic possibility -- this time as participants. Two of the past three seasons, Peeler took the team members to watch the state final in hopes that this year's senior class could accomplish what had not been done at Santa Fe in 13 years -- bring home a state title.

[+] EnlargeWill Okwuonu
Carol Shanahan for ESPN.comWill Okwuonu (in white) goes up for a header in a Santa Fe match this season. His move from forward to defense was key in the team's state title run.
The 2009 season began well for the Wolves as they knocked off defending state champion Edmond Memorial in penalty kicks in the season opener. Memorial carried a state-best 15-match win streak into the contest.

Quickly, though, the first-game elation wore off and Santa Fe was sitting at 1-2 -- including an 8-1 thrashing by Tulsa Union on March 10.

After that match, Peeler knew he had to shake up the lineup.

The first move was taking Okwuonu, the team's best athlete, who was playing forward, and moving him to defense.

"If no one scores on us, you can't lose," Peeler said.

Peeler welcomed the return of Hall, a basketball player who missed Santa Fe's first few matches, including the Tulsa Union debacle. Hall ended up with 12 goals and a school-record 10 assists on the season. Schmid returned from a concussion sustained early in the Union match, and a transfer from Edmond North helped solidify the lineup.

The Wolves won seven of their last eight regular-season matches, with the lone setback a 1-0 loss to then-state No. 1 Norman North.

Once the playoffs started, Santa Fe showed signs of being a team of destiny. Santa Fe defeated both Mustang and Putnam City North (Oklahoma City) 2-1 after trailing 1-0 in each match. Santa Fe never actually led at any point in the state semifinals or final, with both matches decided on penalty kicks. In the semifinals, Santa Fe knocked off Broken Arrow, setting up the rematch with Union for the title.

Union's freshman standout Cristian Mata scored early in the match. Hall netted the equalizer early in the second half, setting up the penalty-kick finish.

Schmid said he looked at his armband, thought of Serrato and then said a prayer prior to the shootout.

"I know he was there, helping us," Schmid said.

Schmid produced a pair of saves in the first four rounds of penalty kicks while teammates Robert Edge and Matt Coker converted their chances. Hall stepped to the penalty spot with a 2-1 advantage, knowing that a successful conversion would result in a trophy.

Hall's shot to the left side of the goal caught the Union keeper flat-footed.

"It was shock," Hall said of the victory. "I can't believe we're state champs. It's like it's we're still questioning it: 'We're state champs?'"

Mixed into the celebration was a sobering moment for the Santa Fe following.

Peeler intentionally left Serrato's name on the official team roster. When the public-address announcer called Serrato's name during the awards ceremony, the slain student's father emerged from the crowd to collect his son's championship medal.

"We knew he deserved it as much as anyone else on the team," Okwuonu said.

"It was really moving," Hall added.

Anything else simply would not have been Santa Fe soccer.

Sheldon Shealer covers youth soccer for ESPNRISE.com. He can be reached at Sheldon.Shealer@espn.com.