WOODSTOCK – On the night of Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, the St. Mary’s Warriors boy’s soccer team had a nightmare come to life that would send most teams in a spiral tough to recover from.
Their former captain, Matt Letwin, 19, was driving home from Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont., where he was a first-year student in the Environmental Technology program. While on the road on his way home to Woodstock for Thanksgiving weekend, Letwin was involved in a car crash that claimed his life.
“Man, we had some fun over the years,” said Warriors coach Ed Hatzenbuhler, who had coached Letwin for almost a decade. “He was a good kid with a lot of heart.”
Letwin had played soccer for St. Mary’s the past four years and had an undeniable influence on the team.
Loaded with personality, Letwin was known to have the skill to create motivation at the most critical moments when the team needed a jolt.
“His personality – you can’t forget that,” Warriors co-captain Jesse Shelton said. “His favourite saying was always ‘twice as hard’. It’s stuck in my mind for the past five years.”
Letwin could kick start his team when they needed it the most.
“Whenever the team got into a rough patch, he’d always give the best motivational talks and get the team going,” Warriors co-captain Grayson Kirby said.
In the cold days of October, the Warriors season started early. The team decided to dedicate its season to Letwin, and players have been wearing a patch with his name on their jerseys as a constant reminder.
“We’ve been going for so long this season. We started extra early because we wanted to dedicate this season to Matt,” Kirby said. “The season means a lot to everyone, and we’re really doing it all for him because he’s been with us the whole time.”
Tragedies like these have a uniqueness of either destroying teams or bringing them together like they otherwise wouldn’t have been.
In the Warriors case, it strengthened their team bond.
“That was our goal to dedicate the season to him. They know how he would push them forward and get them up for the next game and help them along,” Warriors coach Peter Standish said. “The boys are good enough without that incentive, but it gives them a bit more.
Any athlete will tell you they look for motivation everywhere. Anything that helps give them a final push, an extra yard or that last bit of strength to win, they’ll use. This, though, is different than motivation. This is about dedication to a former teammate and friend.
Now, this Wednesday, the team’s hard work has earned them the right to travel to North Bay from June 7 to June 9 to compete in the OFSAA boys ‘AA’ soccer championship at the Steve Omischi Sports Complex.
They’ll be in Pool D and facing high schools from Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Timmins and Sarnia, including St. Christopher’s Secondary School, who won last year’s championship.
“You’ve got to beat everyone anyways, so it doesn’t matter who you face,” Standish said. “With high school soccer, you never know what you’re going to get until you get there because it’s such a short season.”
They’ll play four games in two days, with the playoff round beginning on June 9, with the top two teams from each pool move forward.
The Warriors earned their way to the provincial finals with a 3-1 win over Holy Cross High School at the Western Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association championship.
“It was exciting to watch and see their faces when they won,” Standish said. “Some of them were shaking with excitement. It was a great feeling. They set out to reach the goal of winning WOSSAA for Matt, and they did it.”
Before they reached WOSSAA, they narrowly beat St. Joseph’s Catholic High School 4-3 in the TVRA southeast final.
“We’ve faced hurdles all year, like the game against St. Joseph’s. We were behind all game,” Hatzenbuhler said. “We’d score to tie it up and they’d score again. It always seemed like there was always an extra boost, like Matt was looking down at us to make sure we’d get through.”
St. Joseph’s was the top team in the south division and was undefeated all year until their loss to the Warriors.
St. Mary’s finished second in the east division with five wins and one loss and 15 points. They ended the regular season scoring 19 goals, while only giving up three.
As they head to the OFSAA championship, the Warriors are at ease and ready for the teams they’ll face. On Monday afternoon, they practised in a steady downpour of rain as they fooled around after practice.
They played a game called World Cup hat sees teams of two pick a country, and before they score, they have to yell out their country name. Towards the end of the game, as rain pelted down on the soccer pitch, Argentina scored, which inspired one player to slide across the wet grass as if he was playing to a full stadium of 100,000.
It’s a sign that this team is relaxed, with few nerves.
They’ve been through enough adversity throughout the year and have earned that right.
Any high school student shouldn’t have to deal with heartbreak like this. They should be worrying about finishing homework, how to get someone to buy them beer on weekends or how to get a day off school.
“The guys have just dug deep for it all year,” Hatzenbuhler said. “It’s kind of like a Cinderella story all year. We just told the guys let’s go (to North Bay) and enjoy the moment.”
The coaches, players, and their “team mom,” Sandra Standish, who works behind the scenes with paperwork, school and countless other jobs, have achieved much.
“The coaches have really helped us progress throughout the year,” Kirby said. “(Sandra) does a lot that doesn’t get recognized. She makes everything possible. We’ve practiced really hard throughout the season and now it’s just getting everything together to work right this weekend,”
The team has worked hard to dedicate itself to get to OFSAA for their teammate and friend. Now they’re ready for their chance to prove themselves at OFSAA.
“It’s what we’ve been working towards all year,” Shelton said.
Perhaps, just maybe, their dream season will continue in North Bay.
Source: Appeared in Woodstock Sentinel-Review on June 5, 2012