In the hours leading up to the Division I championship boys soccer game Saturday, Phoenix Brophy soccer coach Marc Kelly wrestled with a difficult decision.
Four of his starters had celebrated a little too much after a goal against Tolleson in the semifinal game. There wasn’t anything malicious in the celebration; nor were the players taunting Tolleson or its fans.
But they had been warned previously about the antics and told to knock it off. Also, Kelly thought their actions reflected poorly on Brophy, a Jesuit school, and its values. He wanted his players to act as if they had been there before, which they had — plenty of times. Brophy finished 19-2, its only two losses came against out-of-state schools and it outscored its opponents 112-10.
“We’ve got a team full of seniors and we were a very, very dominant offensive powerhouse. We had guys who were scoring goals all over the place,” Kelly said. “But for whatever reason they felt like they needed to do goal dances every time they scored.”
Kelly’s gut told him to bench the foursome — forwards Riggs Lennon and David Lane, and midfielders Oliver Shanks and Colin Zaccagnio — for the first half of the state title game against Phoenix Desert Vista, and he knew if he did so, he’d have the support of both his principal and athletic director.
Still, this was the championship game. All those hours, days and months of hard work had led to this moment. What if the benching cost Brophy the title? How would the kids react? How would their parents react?
“Clearly, it was a gamble,” Kelly said. “I knew something bad could have happened, and as a result of the decision, everything could have gone down the drain.”
Kelly decided he had to do the right thing, consequences be damned. In doing so, he exemplified the ideal of high school coaching; that teaching young men and women how to conduct themselves is paramount, and character matters more than championships.
“Even though it was clearly a huge game in front of a huge amount of people, that sort of thing we just can’t stand for,” Kelly said.
Can we get an amen?
No one would have chastised Kelly had he taken the easy way out. His players didn’t commit a crime or do something so egregious Kelly had no choice but to sit them down. They celebrated a little too hard. In the pantheon of athletic bad acts, that’s barely a misdemeanor.
If the excessive celebration against Tolleson had been a first offense, Kelly might have let the foursome off with a warning. But it had been a season-long issue, and in the state quarterfinal game against Chandler Hamilton on Feb. 2, Brophy’s players celebrated a goal by putting their hand to their ear, as if to say, “We can’t hear you.”
The display upset Brophy Principal Bob Ryan, who made it clear the team needed to behave itself. Kelly talked to his players about “making right decisions, being stand-up guys and being respectful of your opponent.”
Five days later, after the goal against Tolleson, the four players pantomimed, in Kelly’s words, “Creating a toilet and taking a crap on the field.”
“It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t malicious or mean-spirited, but I thought it was a little rude and in really bad taste.”
Kelly struggled with his decision all day Friday. He sought advice from several people, including his father. He didn’t talk to the parents of the players; their emotional investment was too great.
“The way I viewed it, there didn’t deserve to be any punishment,” said John Lennon, Riggs’ father. “That’s my personal opinion. I think they could have handled it in a more professional manner outside the state championship game.
“That being said, Marc was getting a lot of pressure from higher-ups in the administration and he had to make a decision. I respect him for that. But the thing is I think some of those higher-ups at the school don’t really understand the kids’ passion for soccer.”
Or, they understand that sportsmanship still matters.
By Saturday morning, Kelly had made up his mind, and he told his team of the decision two hours before the championship game. The players apologized and asked him to reconsider. He refused.
“I couldn’t go back on my decision,” he said. “I didn’t think it was right to change my mind just because they wanted me to.”
Some coaches, bowing to the moment, might have. But values are meaningless if they’re compromised by circumstance.
“I think I sent a message saying I don’t like that kind of thing,” Kelly said. “I just didn’t want to stand for it anymore.”
By the way, Brophy beat Phoenix Desert Vista, 2-0.
Reach Bordow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow