CHEYENNE – The Laramie County Community College men’s soccer team boarded its flight to Melbourne, Florida, knowing Hurricane Dorian had already forced one match of their late-August trip to be cancelled.
The Golden Eagles hoped moving their match against Eastern Florida State College up a day wouldn’t cost them two matches. They were able to play that match, but returned to their hotel to find they were being forced to check out two days earlier than expected.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an evacuation order for the area that included Melbourne. Unfortunately for LCCC coach Vince Gibson, that evacuation order hadn’t reached his airline by the time he tried to reschedule his team’s flight. Had they gotten the evacuation order, they would have changed the flight for free. Instead, they wanted to charge LCCC thousands in fees.
After several hours on the phone with the airline, LCCC President Joe Schaffer and interim athletics director Cynthia Henning, Gibson reached an agreement that would allow the Eagles to miss their flight out of Florida without losing their seats on the connecting flight in Charlotte.
The only catch was they would have to drive to Charlotte themselves.
The travelling party of 28 piled into two 15-passenger vans and a Chevy Tahoe and set out on a two-day journey that bonded them in ways a month of preseason training never could.
The adversity galvanized them and set them on a path to their first National Junior College Athletic Association tournament, which starts Tuesday in Tyler, Texas.
“It was pretty rough, but we had to do it,” freshman defender Imourana Naite of New York City said. “It was a pretty scary experience, but we tried to make the most of it.
“There is so much diversity on this team that it took us a while to come together. When we drove all the way from Florida to North Carolina, we got to spend a lot of time together getting to know each other and building bonds.”
The Eagles passed time playing the silly games that are staples of road trips. While some young men might have been too cool to engage in the games, the team dove in.
“Everyone was engaged, playing along and having a great time,” sophomore midfielder Cameron Broadhurst said. “The coaches were having a great time, and the players were having a great time. We all loved it.”
The Eagles laughed at each other, laughed with each other, got sick of each other and saw parts of the United States most had never seen. Above all, they kept high spirits.
“It rained on us the entire way, but I never heard any of the guys complain about the situation,” Gibson said. “They just rolled with the punches. From getting kicked out of our hotel, to getting rained on the entire time, to being cramped up in those vans for all those hours, they never complained.
“They took cues from their team captains, kept a good attitude and kept moving forward.”
That mentality helped them the following weekend, as their losing streak extended to three games with a 9-1 loss at Iowa Western and a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Iowa Lakes.
Some teams would have unraveled after being outscored 17-1 during three consecutive defeats. But the team with players from throughout the western U.S., Nepal, England and South Africa never lost sight of the big picture.
“We trusted our buddies who were standing next to us,” sophomore defender Chayce Willett of Cheyenne said. “We trusted our coaches, and we played for each other. We went out and played some of the best teams in the country just to see how we stacked up.
“We learned some things we needed to change, and we changed those things. The Florida trip and the Iowa trip made us who we are.”
Who the Eagles are is winners of 13 consecutive matches. That number should be 14, but the shootout victory over Marshalltown Community College that earned them a berth in the NJCAA tourney officially goes into the record books as a tie.
Gibson and his staff changed LCCC’s formation to better suit this year’s personnel. That helped them unlock the finishing touch that eluded them during a three-game losing streak.
“When we got back from Iowa, our energy was pretty low,” Naite said. “But we knew the talent and chemistry were there. We made a few changes and kept pushing, kept pushing and kept pushing, and that got us where we are today.”