The Alcoa High School boys soccer team seemed especially tense.
This was a really big match, with the Tornadoes set to kickoff
against one of the states most storied programs.
To lighten the mood, bus driver Stan Turner cut right to the chase as the Tornadoes exited the team bus.
"He told us if we didnt win, he wasnt taking us home," senior Reed Guzzo said.
Fellow senior Austin Womac saved the Tornadoes some substantial shoe leather less than 10 minutes from time, collecting the rebound of a Guzzo shot and powering it by the Oak Ridge goalkeeper to lift Alcoa to a stunning, 2-1, win over the Wildcats last Tuesday at Oak Ridge.
"After that, it was just crazy," Womac, a Tornado co-captain, said.
Womacs winning goal was a landmark shot for a program only now exiting its infancy, compared to its more seasoned opponent. Oak Ridge fielded its first boys soccer team in 1972, with club teams a fixture in the area since the mid 1960s.
Alcoa soccer took its first uncertain steps in the late 1980s.
The Wildcats have twice been Class AAA state runners-up, their last appearance in the championship game coming in 2004.
The Tornadoes won their first District 3A/AA title only a year ago. In a region containing four-time state champion Christian Academy of Knoxville 2003-2006 and 2007 runner-up Catholic, Alcoa is still looking for its first sectional berth.
This wasnt David vs. Goliath. This was David and Goliath and Goliaths two older brothers, Gil and Chuck.
"It was amazing," sophomore Sam Thompson said. "Oak Ridge is a really good team. Im glad our seniors got to leave with a win over them."
The reasons for scheduling the Wildcats were twofold, Alcoa coach Tom Gorman said.
Oak Ridge home matches are played on a wide, flat, regulation soccer field. The Tornadoes play home matches at Goddard Field, complete with its narrow, crowned football playing surface.
"If we advance (in postseason), were going to be playing on a big field at some point," Gorman, a 1997 graduate of Oak Ridge, said. "So I wanted to see how wed do on it."
The other reason is the Catholic and CAK teams the Tornadoes are sure to encounter on those same big fields.
After tangling with the Wildcats, perhaps meetings with the Irish and Warriors later this season "wont be such a big deal," Gorman said.
The Tornadoes have been gathering strength for such a match as last weeks meeting with the Wildcats for four seasons. A senior class that includes Smock, Womac, Guzzo and midfielder Justin Rose took its lumps initially. District heavy Carter beat em three times that first season.
In a thriller in last years district tournament title match, Guzzo headed down a long cross from Thompson late in the match, and Alcoa had its first crown with a 2-1 victory. Prior to Tuesday, it was the programs crown jewel.
"That was huge," Smock said, "just because it was the first time wed ever done it."
Smock, whos signed with Tennessee Wesleyan, capped a brilliant
season a year ago by being named district player of the year, with
three others Womac, Thompson and Robert Williams joining
him on the first team. Three others Guzzo,
Rose and senior B.J. Haven were named to the second team. Gorman was named coach of the year.
Womac and Smock would go on to be named all-region.
Alcoas rise has only continued in 2007. Sophomore Andrew Mitchells 12 goals pace a wide-ranging attack in which 14 Tornadoes have tallied at least a goal. Guzzo, Thompson and Womac have found the back of opposing nets for nine, seven and five goals, respectively.
Mitchell, Thompson and freshman fullback Derrick Brodus lead the playmakers with four assists each.
The previous totals dont include Tuesdays 5-2 win at Fulton.
The arrival of "The Chosen One" Thompson a year ago,
has been key. The talented forward/midfielder, thought by
many to be the Tornadoes first, legitimate Division I prospect, came by his nickname for obvious reasons, Smock said.
Thompson had a whirlwind season with Alcoas state champion football team last fall. He had just as big an impact on the hardwood with the Tornado basketball team.
Thompsons two older brothers, Ira and Ben, are both cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Sam, who carries a 4.0-plus grade point average, may soon follow them there.
"Hes good at everything," Smock said.
Yet, when Carter came calling for a big district match three days following on the win over the Wildcats, even Thompson wasnt enough prevent a tough, 2-1 loss.
"Coming into the game, we thought we were just going to kill them," Womac said. "After we lost, it was just like the lowest low. I couldnt sleep that night."
"I stayed up until three in the morning," Guzzo said.
Coaching the Tornadoes to a win over his alma mater was a proud moment, Gorman said. Falling to the Hornets three days later reminded him theres still much work to be done.
"That was a mess Friday night," Gorman said, "to give up a goal in the first 15 seconds. It was probably a combination of the game against Oak Ridge and going down, 1-0, 15 seconds into the match. I probably didnt do a good job of calming them down. We didnt posses the ball well after that at all.
"Were just going to brush it off and keep trying to get better."
Womac pulled Alcoa even with the Hornets at 1-all with a penalty kick before the half, only to see Carter collect the winning goal with a bender over the wall in the final 10 minutes.
Theres a lot of soccer to be played between now and next months district tournament. The Tornadoes will rally, Womac said.
"Weve just got to take every game and approach it with the same attitude we did against Oak Ridge," he said.
Theres a potential bright spot in the loss to the Hornets. If the Tornadoes return to the district title game this season, with Fridays loss, the championship game will likely take place at Carter.
Its a long walk home from Strawberry Plains, too.