Dec. 4, 2009

By Carl Kotala
Special To

TAMPA – For some, it’s a case of unfinished business. For others, it’s just that infectious joy that makes them want to pinch themselves … or maybe not.
After all the work they’ve put in this season, after all the dreams they’ve carried for these past five months – maybe longer –  it’s here; the national championship game.
“I don't want to (pinch myself) -- I don’t want to wake up," Cal State Dominguez Hills junior Melissa Livergood said. "It’s amazing. It’s an amazing experience. I couldn’t ask for anything more. … I can’t describe it any other way.”
Fresh off their upset of No. 1 West Florida in Thursday night’s semifinals, the No. 15 Toros (17-8-2) will face No. 3 Grand Valley State (21-0-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Pepin Field. It will be the second time in the past four years that Grand Valley will have a shot at the title. Cal State Dominguez Hills won it all in 1991.
“One more game. We can’t hold back,” Grand Valley junior Kristen Eible said. “I think we’re really excited. We’re a young team, but it’s been a long year. We’re not young anymore. I think we’re ready. We’re excited for Saturday.”
Saturday’s women’s championship will be followed at 4 p.m. by the men’s title game, which features No. 9 Lees-McCrae (19-2-1) against No. 1 Fort Lewis (23-1).
It will mark the fourth appearance in the championship game for Fort Lewis, which won the title in 2005. For seniors like David Barden, Tom Settle and goalkeeper Zane Wells, it will mark their second opportunity at winning the national title. They lost 1-0 to Dowling in 2006.
“Looking back, we have regrets,” Barden said following Thursday’s 8-2 semifinal win over Le Moyne. “But … we have a second chance, and you don’t know how excited we are to do it. There are probably six or seven other boys that were with the team that pushed us to where we are. (Looks at Settle and Wells) A second chance, boys. You know we’re ready to do it.”
It’s been an interesting season for the Skyhawks, who underwent a coaching change in July when Tim Hankinson resigned to take a job in India and assistant Ogie Kennedy was named the interim coach. Kennedy, now in his fourth season, had come on board under the previous head coach, Jeremy Gunn, and had stayed on with the idea that he would get a shot at the job the next time it became available.
Now that he has been given that chance, the 27-year-old said it’s his goal every day he goes to work to reward that opportunity. But while players like Wells said their confidence level soared the moment they found out he would be their coach, Kennedy gave the credit right back to them.
“We sat down in August as a group and we said this was the goal for the season, to win the national title,” Kennedy said. “They’ve certainly come up and proved every single time that that’s what they wanted to do. It’s a credit to them. Every single one of them is a team player, and it’s just a great group of kids to work with, on and off the field.”
Fort Lewis may be No. 1 now, but Lees-McCrae has had its time as the No. 1 ranked team in the country, which means the final should be a dandy – particularly if Bobcats goalkeeper Sean Paradise can keep up his stellar play from Thursday’s semifinal.
Speaking after his team defeated Lewis on penalty kicks (5-3) on Thursday, Paradise, who is from North Port, Fla., was still awestruck.
“Right now, I’m kind of in disbelief,” he said. “It hit me when I saw my family, and I think it’s going to hit me later on that I’m playing in a national championship game. Right now, it’s kind of just (a feeling of) excitement and I’m drained. It’s all positive. It’s great, man.”
Dominguez Hills coach Joe Flanagan has a chance to pull off a rare double-double on Saturday. Last season, he coached the Toros’ men’s team to the national title. And while things haven’t always gone smoothly for the women’s team this season, the fact that they’re here says a lot about they way they’ve been playing down the stretch.
“After the boys won, that was something we wanted so much to do for ourselves, for our coaches, for everyone,” Livergood said. “I think just us believing in ourselves has gotten us this far. Believing in our teammates and pushing ourselves. That’s what got us here.”
What started out as a dream is going to be a reality for two teams on Saturday. But just getting to the championship game, well, that’s an accomplishment in itself.
“It just feels like all your hard work throughout the whole season has finally like …  my gosh, paid off,” Lakers goalkeeper Chelsea Parise said. “All the extra running, the lifting and everything, it paid off. It feels good.”