In soccer, as in most sports, numbers never seem to capture the whole story. But ultimately, the ones on the scoreboard when time runs out carry the most weight.
For the Free State High soccer team, that meant a bitter end to the season on Tuesday, as it fell, 1-0 in double-overtime, to Topeka High in a 6A regional playoff game at FSHS.
The match was essentially a microcosm of the Firebirds’ season: control of the game via stifling possession of the ball, sound defense and numerous scoring chances — but an inability to consistently put the ball in the net.
What wasn’t as fitting was the end result for coach Kelly Barah and his nine seniors.
“(We have) a team that constantly has proven they can play with anyone in the league, but not getting the results to show for it is unbelievable,” Barah said. “But that’s the way sports go.”
As Topeka’s James Gragson lined the game-winner past senior keeper Elliott Johnson with 2:30 left in the second overtime, the Trojans sprinted off the field in jubilation.
Johnson, though, lay still on the ground; his Firebird teammates stood scattered around him, apparently in disbelief.
“It just really hurts,” senior Tony Libeer said. “We’ve played as hard as we can all season; we’ve put in a lot. And for all us seniors, it’s the last time we get to play.”
Long after the game, several Firebirds (6-9-2) lingered on the field, kicking at the turf or staring off into the night sky.
Barah, also emotional after the game, commended his seniors — and his entire team — for their effort this season.
“The thing that I really wish people could see is the character of the players that I have,” he said.
“I love coming to coach people who work hard and give it all every single day,” he added.
In a game devoid of scoring, Free State’s defense truly shined. Will Libeer and his brother Tony, also a senior, stood out in particular.
Twice in the first half, Will Libeer thwarted a scoring chance by Topeka forward Adrian Martinez.
On the first instance, Libeer used his body to get position on Martinez, and slowed him up enough to steal the ball and clear it away.
The second was even more impressive.
On a rush toward the net, Martinez dribbled around Johnson, who had sprinted forward and slid to scoop away the ball, creating a wide-open look at the net.
Martinez rifled a shot that appeared to be a sure goal; only Libeer came sliding in at the last minute to deflect the ball away.
FSHS’s defense continued to stifle the Trojans, often holding them to one-and-done offensive possessions.
All the while, the Firebirds — led by junior Hunter Peirce and senior Alec Heline — mounted several offensive chances, including many that nearly found the back of the net.
As was the case many times this season, though, the Firebirds could not capitalize with a goal before their opponent.
Barah, though somewhat at a loss for words after the game, acknowledged the pain of the loss was lessened some because of how much he felt the team grew.
“It’s heartbreaking already as it is,” Barah said. “But all in all, it was a great year for us.”
Note: The following Free State seniors played their last game on Tuesday night: Elliott Johnson, Will Libeer, Tony Libeer, Preston Newsome, Dylan Bergstrom, Diego Gonzalez, Nathan Bowman, Alec Heline and Ian Simmons.