State tournament loss, coaches’ illness linger
The bodies were scattered across the field at Park High School after the boys dropped in utter shock in the aftermath of the result.
The Champlin Park boys soccer team had not lost a single game all year, roaring to a 13-0-1 regular season mark that would read 16-0-1 by the time the Rebels arrived in the Class AA state quarterfinals.
There, however, the end would come abruptly after Blaine found a way to a 2-1 victory.
“It looked like a bunch of dead bodies sprawled out across the field,” said A.J. Gardner. “The bus ride home was even worse. Up until then, it was probably the worst experience of my life.”
Unfortunately, it would be short lived. As would the boys reaction to what, at the time at least, felt like a life-and-death loss to their rivals.
Before the school year would be completed, news spread back to the boys that their head coach had been afflicted with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gavin Pugh’s life had suddenly been intercepted by a disease that he is not expected to beat.
Word spread quickly in the tightly-knit soccer world. Communities near and far have offered to help with fundraisers for the Pugh family, which includes two young children.
It was a devastating blow to all who knew him. But for the players and coaches who worked by his side, it was worse.
“There really aren’t words to describe it,” said Scott Dossett, who had coached with Pugh for six years at Champlin Park before taking over for him as the head coach this fall. “When you face adversity, you need people there to support you. It is nice to get reminders, but certainly not in this capacity. This is tough on all of us.”
The team has an escape in front of it however, as preparations are well underway for a season that begins with games at Woodbury Thursday, Aug. 22 at home vs. Rogers Saturday, Aug. 24.
In truth, those still around most affected by what Pugh is going through are few.
Only two players return from last year. Gardner, a versatile midfielder, is one. Keeper Alec Leabo, whose performance in a Section 5AA championship game shootout victory over Mounds View helped Champlin Park reach last year’s state tournament, is the other.
“That’s really it,” said Leabo. “So with what happened against Blaine, or what has happened to Gavin, I think it affects me and A.J. the most. We grew pretty close with him. We went through that together, but now we have to move on with this team.”
What that team is expected to look like come this week was still very much up in the air, other than the likelihood that very few of the players have probably never touched a razor.
“We are going to be young, really young,” said Dossett. “We will be looking at a lot of younger players to contribute at a high level earlier than in year’s past. But that’s not a shock. We graduated 25 players last year. We knew this team might have to be young.”
The target on their backs won’t be leaving anytime soon. The Champlin Park varsity team went undefeated in the regular season last year, and the junior varsity matched the performance, winning each time out.
As Gardner put it, “Most of the guys don’t know how to lose.”
Dossett recognized that much as well, noting that the team’s the Rebels beat along the way probably haven’t forgotten either.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us because, above everything else, they are just going to want to beat Champlin Park,” Dossett said. “But our goal has never been to go undefeated. Last year just happened, and it happened on JV too. We won every game, but that was just a product of the process. Now it is over. Now, we move on and start over.”
Contact Nick Clark at [email protected]