CARY, NC – Sport can be extremely cruel at times.
How else to explain what happened Sunday afternoon in the first minute of the NCAA Championship game to UW junior goaltender Sam Fowler, one of the best in the country in office and as reliable as possible.
On a ball that was kicked behind the UW defense, Fowler ran out of the box to clear it. He swung his foot like he did a hundred times, but it was different. He sniffled, the bullet continuing its way behind him.
Clemson’s Isaiah Reid was in a perfect position to take advantage of the giveaway, locking the ball up and sending it into the goal with Fowler out of position.
That put the Huskies behind just 27 seconds in the game on Sunday afternoon, and they lost 2-0 at Sahlen Stadium in WakeMed Soccer Park.
“It’s because of the Clemson defense, and they did enough to withstand a lot of pressure,” said UW coach Jamie Clark. “… More importantly is how proud I am of these guys and the season they’ve had. They were amazing, a pleasure to coach, they were great role models for the Seattle football community and they made history.
Indeed. Washington made the College Cup for the first time in the history of the program. The No. 2 Huskies (18-2-2) were the No. 1 seed in the Final Four and the nation’s No. 1 team in the power standings.
But it was a tough end to a historic season, as Washington was ruled out for the first time this season after defeating No. 3 seed Georgetown in the semifinals to reach the title game.
The Clemson crowd entered the pitch after the victory, and it took around 20 minutes for the team to come together in midfield for the trophy ceremony. The Huskies stayed on the field the entire time, patiently watching the Tigers officially receive their new gear.
Clemson (16-5-2), No. 8 seed and lowest seed in the Final Four, beat No. 1 seed Oregon State to advance to the College Cup, then beat the seed # 4 Notre Dame and the Huskies to win it all.
Clark had stressed the importance of starting quickly. The opposite happened when Fowler made a rare mistake.
“It just took a different rebound than I expected,” said Fowler, who was No. 2 in the nation in save percentage.
Said UW Ryan Sailor, a sixth-year senior and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, “These things happen. We all know Sam is one of the best goalies in the country. We don’t doubt it for a second. Mistakes happen and you just try to move forward.
But it got worse for UW in the 15th minute when Reid made a long pass and steered it about 15 yards into the top left corner of the net.
This gave Clemson a 2-0 lead. Washington, meanwhile, looked slow until the end of the first half – with both teams facing their shortest deadlines of the season after qualifying for the title game on Friday night.
Washington and Clemson each had two shots in the first half, but Clemson took advantage of his opportunities.
The Huskies, one of the best offensive teams in the country, tried to increase the pressure in the second half but struggled to penetrate the Clemson defense for shooting opportunities.
Washington had seven shots in the second half, including three in the dying minutes and just two shots on goal for the game. The Huskies outscored Clemson 9-4 for the game, but that meant little.
“We’ve had a lot of balls where there’s usually a header and crosses that just crossed the skate that we’ve capitalized on in the past,” said Clark. “I think we’ve had enough chances to turn the tide. We are almost never excluded. It was a low shot total, but I felt like we had enough pressure.
Sailor said last week that he wants to leave the program better than he was when he started. He succeeded.
“It has been an honor to be a part of it and to see how far we have come in the six years (reaching at least the Elite Eight in the past three seasons),” said Sailor. “It was a great place when I got here, and it’s a great place when I leave. I will miss all the guys, and I know this is a special program.
“For a lot of guys this whole experience of going to the College Cup is going to be huge because when we come back here we’ve been here before and it will make a difference.”
Fowler looks forward to a chance to come back saying, “I think I’ll get through this by working harder than ever.”
But don’t tell Clark it hasn’t been a successful season, even if it ended in loss.
“It’s an honor and a better story (to win the title), but we have enjoyed every minute of this season,” said Clark. “We all said we wanted to get every minute and every quit this season, and we did. We’d rather celebrate… but we made the most of it and I want every minute, every hour with these guys I can get.
Note: This story has been updated to clarify how Clemson’s first goal was scored.