By Mike Deak
WINONA LAKE – “I stood behind that goal, and I felt physically sick.”
Arron Patrick was about to coach the biggest match of his college coaching career and he was tore up about someone else’s misery. As his Grace College men’s soccer program warmed up to the side of the the championship pitch in Kissimmee, Florida, last Saturday night, Patrick could do nothing as Grace’s women’s soccer program lost, 2-1, on a deflected ball in double overtime of the NCCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship.
Patrick stood and watched his friend and program mate, Michael Voss, rally the troops after Dallas Baptist hoisted the trophy in jubilation. But rather than sulk, Voss and his team went right to the stands and urged Patrick and his crew to do better.
As if Grace needed any motivation in the NCCAA Men’s Soccer National Championship. The Lancers traveled 20-plus hours by bus to face its arch rival that is situated about an hour northwest of the Winona Lake campus – Bethel University – a program that also has a grip on Patrick’s heart. And Patrick wasn’t about to walk off the pitch in the same manner as Voss was forced to. And certainly not against his alma mater.
“The most impressive thing, the girls got into the stands and were unbelievable for us,” Patrick said. “They showed so much love and character. That was a huge moment for us. It shows what Michael and I are trying to do. We had a quiet confidence like we would take care of it.”
Patrick, a proud Bethel graduate, was a soccer star with the Pilots. His dealings with the program in returning to the Crossroads League as a coach at Goshen and then Grace were always anticipated. His competitive spirit never questioned. And with the opportunity to not only avenge a 1-0 loss to the Pilots in September, but then to cap it with the first-ever soccer championship for Grace was too appetizing.
“We felt like we had the best team all year, but we had all sorts of issues,” Patrick said, noting a total of 17 players from his roster missed time this season with COVID-related issues. “We were better than Bethel in the conference game. We were better than them in the championship. I told an assistant coach that I wanted to get them four-nil. It came to fruition.”
A pair of first-half goals from Felipe Gruber had Grace well on its way against the Pilots, and single tallies in the second half from Cedric Brenneman and Ulisses Miranda took the lead often termed “most vulnerable” at 2-0 and put too much distance between the two sides.
As the Lady Lancers came to their feet in unison, the Lancers mobbed one another after claiming the first soccer title in school history and just the fourth championship in Grace College athletics history. Grace had put away Central Catholic and Carolina, 4-1 each, in the pool play and in the semis shut out Campbellsville, 1-0, avenging a 2019 NCCAA tournament loss.
To now be known as champion was slightly bittersweet for Patrick, who himself felt a small void.
“It was a little difficult for me,” slowly quipped Patrick, sitting in the new home his family built adjacent to the Stonehenge Golf Course. His first year as Lancers head coach was spent driving back and forth from Elkhart where his family still lived until this summer. “The hard part for me was that my family wasn’t there to share the moment with me. COVID robbed me of that. But when I got home, as soon as I pulled into the driveway, their light turned on. I got to show them the trophy. That was just as important to me.”
In the biggest moments in sports, wins and losses became trivial to family. For Grace’s women’s soccer program, their loss was flipped into a chance to cheer on their men’s teammates to a national championship. For Patrick, hoisting the trophy Saturday night and celebrating with the program into the wee hours of the morning was superseded by a Monday morning wake-up call with his kids. While Grace didn’t bring home two national titles, it may have galvanized itself even tighter as a unified program. One that is winning more than just soccer matches.