Nation Ford’s Bradford Sturkey pounced on the soccer ball in the penalty area – grabbing it with both hands – during the closing stages of the Falcons’ regular season finale against Rock Hill last Thursday at District Three Stadium. The general consensus among the players, including Bearcat senior Moises Pino, and all of the fans was, “What just happened?”
Were it professional soccer, it would have been the kind of fishy play investigated for match-fixing by the game’s governing bodies. And in truth, Sturkey’s handball was not a genuine miscue. But its intent was absolutely not malicious either.
Let’s back up first. Pino tore his left ACL against rival Northwestern in March, ending his final season of high school soccer prematurely. He was devastated. Bearcats coach Cesar Robles made a deal with Pino, scheduled for ACL surgery on Wednesday, that he could start the game against Nation Ford – Rock Hill’s senior night – receive a pass, and dribble out of bounds. He would end his career with a start on the field.
When Robles approached Nation Ford coach Jon Jarrett as the teams were warming up, he completely supported the idea. As the coaches went their separate ways, Jarrett motioned Robles back over. Why not do Pino one better than just a final start?
Fast forward. The Falcons led 3-1 with maybe a minute remaining and Jarrett’s team closing in on the No. 2 seed in Region 3-4A. The dwindling time was all that was left in Rock Hill’s season with the Bearcats eliminated from playoff contention.
That’s when Jarrett and Robles put their plan into action. After hearing that Pino would start the game, Jarrett thought why not let him score late in the game as long as it doesn’t impact the result. With Nation Ford leading 3-1, the situation was perfect.
Jarrett and Robles told the official and a few of the Nation Ford players before the game. No one else, including Pino, knew about the plot.
“(Jarrett) waved at me and I knew exactly what he was talking about,” said Robles, who was standing across the field on the opposite sideline.
Nation Ford had a corner kick in Rock Hill’s defensive end of the field with about 2 minutes left, so the Falcons sent the ball all the way back to midfield. From there, a Falcon player dribbled back to the Nation Ford box and hand-balled the soccer ball.
Oddly, there was no whistle from the referee. A Rock Hill player then stole the ball and tried to score, prompting Sturkey to dive on it. This time the official did blow his whistle, and then reached for his red card.
“Couple of my players were like, ‘Ref, it’s a handball, remember?’” Jarrett said. “He was like, ‘Ohh yeah.’”
The official settled for a penalty kick. Jarrett added, “I’ve never lobbied for a handball before.”
That was when Robles ordered Pino on to the field to take the spot kick.
“He looked at me like I was crazy,” Robles said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, step on to the pitch and take this PK.’”
Pino tottered on to the field. He is right-footed but his plant leg still housed the torn ACL.
“I was kind of nervous,” said Pino, as he and his teammates turned in their team gear Monday after school. “The ref took me aside and said, ‘He’s gonna let you hit this shot.’”
Pino limped toward the ball, but didn’t feel much pain because of the excitement in his head. After he scored, players from both sides congratulated him, while parents and fans in the stands, finally understanding what the heck was going on, cheered Pino’s final kick.
It worked out exactly like Jarrett hoped.
“Didn’t know him, but it didn’t matter,” he said. “You never want to see a kid get hurt and end his season and his high school career and not be able to play or go out on a positive note.”
Pino was grateful to Nation Ford for the idea, saying with a laugh, “I’m just happy I got a goal. I’m not really a scorer.”
It was more than a goal, though, for Pino, anyone involved, or anyone who witnessed.
“We’ve talked about character all year long and what it means to have character and the whole thing we do is for the kids,” said Jarrett, “so what better way for this guy to end his high school career to get a little limelight at the end of the game?”
Jarrett has done a fine job with Nation Ford boys’ soccer in his first season as head coach, helping rebuild a program that fell on harder times last season because of talented players graduating or opting to play club soccer instead. But improved win-loss records are not what Pino will remember the Falcons’ coach for.
“It was just something really cool for this kid,” Robles said. “The coach didn’t have to do anything like that.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T