Darik Dudley paused to collect his thoughts. He couldn't shake what had just happened, nor did he want to.
Following the match against Olathe West, a 3-0 Free State victory, Dudley was honored alongside 11 of his teammates and three of the team’s managers as part of the Senior Night festivities.
As he hugged his teammates one-by-one and shook head coach Kelly Barah’s hand, it all began to hit him. Moments later, as Dudley remained on the field, he began to tear up.
“I’ve known all these people my entire life, and to get to come up in a program with all the people that I know and to make an impact on a team with everyone I know, just really, it means a lot,” he said. “It’s really setting in.”
On the field, Dudley was excellent.
After receiving a pass from fellow senior Nick Howard in the 11th minute, Dudley slotted a left-footed shot past the keeper and into the net. He pumped his fist in celebration as his teammates ran over to greet him.
“It just went in,” he recalled. “It meant a lot.”
There was plenty to follow.
Sophomore Everett Waechter scored in the 17th minute, gaining possession in front of goal and powering a shot right into the net. Later in the half, it was senior goalkeeper Thomas White’s turn to make a play.
Leading 2-0, the Firebirds (6-4-2) gave away a free kick from some 25 yards out from goal. The ball came into the box, taking a deflection and finding the head of an Olathe West player from point-blank range, but White came away with a huge save.
It wasn’t all he did.
Hearing shouts from senior Charlie Newsome to push the ball forward, White booted it downfield, where it carried all the way to Ashton Owen just outside the opposite box. Owen turned and chipped the ball past Owls goalkeeper Ryan Sauter for what was essentially the game-ending score.
“I’m so glad we got the win today,” White said. “We really needed it”
In fitting fashion, it wasn’t one player who helped put the game away, but the collective.
The senior class made its mark. Dudley, White, Howard and Newsome were directly involved in goals, while others like Mburu Nganga and Josh Moore wreaked havoc in the attacking third.
Then there were the others — those who didn’t have the day dedicated to them but played every bit as tough to send the seniors out on the right note.
“It's a testament as well to our underclassmen. All week ... we're preaching, 'Hey we've got to play for our seniors,' " Barah said. "Every single one of them was ready to perform for those seniors."
And it wasn’t lost on the senior class.
After getting the win and participating in the ensuing festivities, White had the chance to reflect on the last year, asked if there was any one moment where it hit him what the day represented.
He took a deep breath before responding.
“Honestly, it still hasn’t set in,” he said. “I’ve gone through today and all my friends are here, my family is here, and it’s great. But I think when I get home tonight I’m going to go to bed and realize that, ‘Wow, this could be our last home game. This could be our last time playing in front of these fans.’ Yeah, that’ll be hard.”
As for his coach, the sentiment was just as strong.
Between the aforementioned group, plus seniors Samuel Six, Jack Campbell, Will Cook, Charlie Hamer, Jared Lieberman and Juan Mendoza — as well as managers Emma Pravecek, Kade Traffas and Remington Wilson — Thursday may have very well marked the last home game for students with a combined 54 years in the program.
For that, the coach's smile carried with it some conflicting emotion as he walked around the field greeting parents and players alike after the match.
"Every single one of them talks about family. And that's where it all starts," Barah said. "They're just quality individuals, and I'm so sad I'm losing this group."