"Don't cry because it's over...smile because it happened..."
It was Ethan Rollinger, the quiet, steady defensive leader of the Vinton-Shellsburg boys' soccer team, who rallied his teammates one final time, but we'll get back to that.
The amazing ride this scrappy group of young men took us all on this spring ended abruptly Wednesday on the pitch of the Karr Athletic Complex as the previously unbeaten Vikes fell 4-1 to an excellent group from Waverly-Shell Rock. The Go-Hawks scored in the 9th minute to put the Vikings behind for the first time all season. But Vikes would counter in the 23rd-minute as Ryan Moore headed in a perfect pass off a free kick from Damon Swenson to deadlock things at 1-1, and it would stay that way to intermission. But a pair Go-Hawk goals early in the second half and the ultimate dagger in the 76th-minute sealed the Vikings fate.
The game ended, and the Waverly-Shell Rock fans cheered their Sub-State champions as they went to pick up their championship banner. In the meantime, the heartbroken Vikings came across the pitch toward a swelling ovation from their parents, friends, and fans who, up until very recently, probably had never been to high school soccer game before. The ovation kept kept getting louder as if the V-S crowd didn't dare want to let go of this team, led by this most remarkable group of seniors. Make no mistake, this team and those seniors have had to overcome more than most any team in the state has over the last 18 months.
And nobody wanted to let go.
It was kind of a jarring moment to watch young head coach Kyle McAbee removing Mike Betterton's number 11 jersey from the bench for the final time. The name, the number and the memory that has inspired a team, a senior class, a school and a community for so long came down short of where everyone hoped it would. And the tears along the Vikings' sideline were deserved, they were expected, but they might have been as much for that moment as they were for the loss.
But as trite and cliche as the phrase, "...don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened..." might be, it was fitting for the moment; tonight, it was perfectly fine to cry.
Speaking as the parent of a senior, I'm beyond proud my son and his amazing classmates. They are leaders and champions, heroes and now legends. But they are also human, and they are also as fragile as any of us. But they are all -- and I mean ALL of the Class of 2021 -- going to go out and change the world in their own way, and I pray I live to be 120 or so, just so I can enjoy every minute of it.
Anyway, back to Ethan...
Nobody seemed to want to leave the safety of the sideline, but they knew they had to; across the way they had people waiting for them. So, the Viking Of The Year brought forth his quiet leadership one more time and called the team together.
Ethan admonished the underclassmen to work hard in the off-season and urged them to be out next year to keep the legacy of 2021 alive and to grow it in the future. He talked about the bond this team has had for so long and how it would always be unbreakable. Then he raised his arm and his teammates joined him, "...one last time for Mikey."
It was silent for a moment, then Ethan uttered the cue that had been in every single Viking soccer huddle this entire remarkable season: "BELEIVE ON THREE!" To a man, his teammates answered with a resounding "BELIEVE", then started filtering across the pitch towards the still cheering mass of humanity on the other side that loved each of them so very much. It was not the ending they wanted, but it was the moment they needed.
For tonight and probably tomorrow, it's OK to cry because it's over. But after that let's all smile because it happened, because what happened was incredible and it couldn't have happened to better group of kids.
And, I have a sneaky suspicion that #11 is probably the proudest of this team of all of us. You carried his name, his memory, and his legacy with pride and honor, and I have doubt you will forever.
Thanks for an amazing year, thanks for some unforgettable memories, and just remember to smile.
ONE, TWO, THREE: BELIEVE!