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Zopf: The sign of a true champion
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The word adversity is often overused in the world of sports, and it’s often used as an excuse.

Coaches use it when their team suffers a major injury to one of the best players. Fans use it when the team seems like it’s lacking chemistry. Players use it when they feel that certain situations didn’t go there way.

Regardless of the context the word is used, it often has a negative connotation. Unless, you’re talking about the boys soccer team from Gainesville High, which won the Class AAA state championship Friday against Woodward Academy.

Throughout the season, the Red Elephants were faced with adversity. And each time, they looked it in the eye, spit in its face and continued on their path toward an undefeated season and the program’s first state title since 1998.

First there was the absence of junior Monish Lahiry, who missed several games this season while competing in England.

Playing without one of its best players, Gainesville continued to win in dominating fashion, and some might say that Lahiry’s absence might have led to winning the championship. After all, a team only knows how good it is once it is forced to play without one of its best players.

With Lahiry back, the Red Elephants marched to a perfect regular season and entered the Class AAA tournament with a No. 2 ranking — trailing only St. Pius X, the nation’s top team. And then they were faced with more adversity.

After cruising to a 4-0 win in the opening round, Gainesville found itself in a proverbial dogfight in the second round against Riverwood, the ninth-ranked team in Class AAA.

In a game that featured a slew of dynamic players, the Red Elephants and Raiders played to a 1-1 tie through regulation. That tie was accomplished because Gainesville overcame adversity when a questionable call inside its box awarded the Raiders a penalty kick, which was promptly denied by keeper Marco Monreal.

More adversity struck a minute later when Gainesville coach Rick Howard was issued a red card for getting into it with the sideline official. One of the biggest games of the year was about to go into overtime and Gainesville had to play without its head coach.

“That gave us more momentum,” Lahiry said after the game. “We wanted to win it that much more.”

That was evident when adversity literally struck senior Irving Salgado, who was inadvertently elbowed in the mouth while battling for possession. Spitting blood from there on out, Salgado ignored the pain and ultimately scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

During the next two games, Gainesville was forced to overcome more adversity. First, it had to play without Howard manning the sidelines in the quarterfinals against Perry.

No coach, no problem. Big Red beat the eighth-ranked team 2-1.

Then came the semifinals against Southeast Whitfield, when Gainesville not only had to play without Howard, but had to play on the road against a top-five team as well. The team’s response to that adversity? You guessed it, another win and a berth in the state championship game.

Overcoming all of those situations paid off against Woodward Academy, as the Red Elephants finally had their coach back and were fully aware that no matter what happened, they could win.

It didn’t matter that they were playing in College Park on Woodward’s home field. They’ve won on the road before, and with the help of a strong fan base it appeared as if the game was being played at City Park.

It also didn’t matter that the team they were playing had just defeated St. Pius, a team that most considered unbeatable. Who they were playing was of little consequence because this group of players knew that what they did was better than what everyone else did.

That’s not arrogance, that’s confidence.

So when the game see-sawed back and forth and headed to a shootout, the Red Elephants showed their mettle and prevailed.

One of their best players (Lahiry) failed to convert the first shot for Gainesville, and instead of hanging their heads and saying it was over, the team rebounded to convert their next four kicks and send the shootout into sudden death.

Suddenly there was no sign of adversity. The only thing that stood in the way of winning a state title was wearing a white Woodward Academy jersey and was about to attempt a penalty kick.

Attempt? Yes. Convert? No.

Monreal stopped the War Eagles’ attempt and minutes later Aiden Reising stepped to the ball and fired a shot into the left side of the net to end the shootout, the game and the 12-year absence of a state championship.

Apparently elephants don’t fear adversity.

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