The University of Vermont men’s soccer team played their final game of the season this past Saturday when they lost to Syracuse 2-1. But it wasn’t any typical season – it was historic for this program in so many ways. They reached the Elite 8 in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament which hadn’t been done by the men’s team since the late 80’s. A tremendous accomplishment. But first, before I continue, I should preface this blog by saying that I didn’t pay much attention to each game in the regular season, and was certainly not living and dying with every goal. I’m not a diehard soccer fan or someone who attends all the games. I used to work in the athletic department at UVM and am a huge supporter of the school in general, but I don’t want to sit here and act like I knew everything about every game played this season. But as I watched them climb the national rankings and put together a few really nice wins, it became apparent to me that this group was special and worth monitoring as the year went on.
Fastforward to the NCAA Tournament 2nd round matchup with SMU. Down 2-0 on the road with 25 minutes remaining, UVM scored 3 goals to capture the win and complete one of the most incredible comebacks I can remember watching in a high stakes soccer match in quite some time. Many people close to the team claim that this group was about as resilient as any team they can remember, especially here at UVM.
As the Catamounts traveled back home to Vermont following that comeback win, we learned that they would be hosting a Sweet 16 matchup, at home, against UCLA. The second I saw that matchup set, I knew I had to get tickets. The game would fall over Thanksgiving weekend, presumptively meaning that students would be away and alums/Vermonters would be home. Well, the game sold out in just a few hours. Vermont showed up and they showed out, as well as the student body, offering support to this Catamount team as they attempted to protect home turf against a tough UCLA team. What got me fired up to go to this game was two fold. Obviously, it was a big game – Win or go (stay) home. But the thought of UCLA, flying into the Burlington airport in Novemeber with snow on the ground, to play in a city and at a field the players from Los Angeles had likely never heard of, filled me with a great sense of pride to be from Vermont and to support this team. So when I walked up to the field on game night and saw the snowbanks piled up against the fence by the goals, the wind wipping the flags back and forth, and the entire venue completely packed in like sardines, it made me proud to be a Vermonter.
The display of community, support and respect that the fans showed the team was incredible. It’s the reason why I love sports so much. It’s simply one of the great unifiers we have in society. And from the moment I arrived, UVM completely dominated the game. When they scored, it wasn’t cheap. In fact, they were screaming shots from outside the 18 yard line. There were near bicycle kicks that hit the post and went in. It was as electric a UVM sporting event as I can recall being at. Watching the press conferences with Coach Rob Dow afterwards, it was evident how much that night meant to him and his team. And I think that partly, it’s because it was evident to him how much that night meant to Burlington and the state of Vermont. We don’t usually get a ton of national recognition here in Vermont, so when we do, we take it seriously and it carries weight amongst the community. I went home that night, and I know hundreds of other people left that game completely buzzing about everything that took place at Virtue Field. In the following days, you would hear people talking about that game in offices, bagel shops, restaurants, or simply around the dinner table.
It encapsulates a part of Vermont that is so special to me that permeats throughout the community – support and pride. Regardless of the conditions outside, the time of year, whatever people have going on, Vermont shows up and they show out to support people, local businesses, charities, teams and so much more. You’ll likely see neighbors, friends, teachers and coaches. You’ll see old classmates, former co-workers, and people that span your whole life. It defines community. It’s something you take for granted when leaving Vermont, or traveling somewhere else. It’s what makes it a unique place to live.
Congrats to the men’s soccer team on an amazing run – you captured the hearts of a lot of people and reminded us all why Vermont is so special to so many of us.