A season full of heartbreak ended with the most gut-wrenching moment of all, as the Cass boys soccer team saw its 2020 campaign end with just a handful of games remaining due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Colonels had proved to be the unluckiest team — quite possibly in any sport — in Bartow County this spring. Cass had suffered a trio of Region 7-AAAAA losses, all of which came in either overtime or in a penalty-kick shootout.
Even still, the Colonels held onto a chance to sneak into the playoffs with wins in their final three region games. However, the team never got the opportunity to play those games after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of all remaining GHSA activities for the 2019-20 school year.
“I thought of all the stuff that we were doing and planned to do for the season, including all the hard work we put in fundraising and all the hard work we put in off the field in the training grounds, and then I thought about the seniors,” Cass coach E.J. Kukoly said of his reaction to the season being suspended. “When it happened at first there was still an ounce of hope that it wasn't going to last long or that there would be an alternative for the season, but that slowly faded.”
In the end, Cass finished 4-6 overall and 2-3 in the region. The season began with an impressive win over Southeast Whitfield, which finished third in Class 4A and didn’t lose the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, the next several games weren’t nearly as kind to the Colonels. There were lopsided losses to 6A’s No. 1 team (Dalton) and then-ranked Cartersville before a narrow defeat against 3A’s 2019 state runner-up Coahulla Creek.
The unlucky streak stretched into region play. Cass lost 1-0 to Carrollton in overtime. The Colonels later fell to Rome and East Paulding on penalties. Shutout wins over Paulding County and Woodland kept Cass in the playoff hunt. The team would have needed to win its final three region games to make it to state, but that seemed a doable task.
“This season was definitely a test,” Kukoly said. “For instance, our first eight opponents were top 10 in their class. … So to be so close on so many occasions against very tough opponents and then have a season cut short and have no avenue to continue our growth into what I feel was going to be a very great team was so unfortunate. We were so close on paper to being the one of the best teams in our region. All the close games that we played but didn't get the win, and in the end, that's what we're always going to remember.”
Cass had three seniors — Julian Aguirre, Jonathan Contreras and Brayan Rodriguez — on this year’s team, and Kukoly really wishes they would have gotten a chance to end their high school careers on a better note.
“I know that it's tough for them,” he said. “I can imagine if that had happened to me what kind of impact it would have had. All the great memories I have of my senior year — not only sports but graduating, everything to do with it. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I hadn't been able to experience all of that, so I definitely empathize with them.
"On the other hand, there will be a good story to tell, but it won't be anything like what it would have been if everything hadn't been canceled.”
There will be an extremely large senior class set to return for the Colonels next season. Among the group, Isai Romero should be among the top goalkeepers in the area, if not the state; Alex Cabanas led the team with five goals and added three assists; and Omar Garcia paced the Colonels with five assists, while adding a pair of goals.
Replacing that loaded Class of 2021 won’t be easy, but at least, next spring is looking like a chance for Cass to put together a potentially historic season. It could hopefully make all of the turmoil from this year a distant memory.
“Our expectations for next season are high,” Kukoly said. “Not only are we moving into a region where we feel competitive, but we also have 14 of our juniors returning for next year and a hunger that goes along with a team that was at the edge of greatness and was not given the opportunity to continue growing into that greatness. The players have basically 365 days a year that they're thinking about soccer and now add to that the fact that everything was unfinished this past season, and I think that they'll be a force to be reckoned with for sure. As long as we get to play a full season of course.
“As coaches, we've got a lot of plans for offseason work, tournaments, fundraising and team building exercises, so by the time next season rolls around we're definitely going to be ready and focused.”