The number-two ranked team in the state. An opponent that allowed a single goal in league play. On the road. Playoff pressure. The Lions’ Round of 16 game against Valley Catholic was a tall task.
With 15 minutes left in the Wed., Nov. 6 matchup, senior forward Oden Armstrong marked up against a Valley Catholic player just outside the box. In the next second, the Valiant forward was on the ground, inside the box, and the referee’s whistle shrieked, calling for a penalty kick. The decisive call, and the subsequent goal by the Valiants (13-1-2, 7-0-1), was enough to seal the loss for Cottage Grove (8-6, 5-3), 1-0.
“It was way over on the other side of the field,” said head coach Vern Stewart. “So, I didn’t object or anything because I didn’t see … That was the game and, obviously, that was the only score.”
The controversial late goal ended the Lions’ season, though Stewart was quick to extinguish any resentment that may have arisen from such a difficult end.
“That’s the human element in the officiating and it’s going to be that way. I’m sure we’ve gotten breaks going in the other direction.”
While the officiating may not have been in Cottage Grove’s favor for this game, the nineteenth-ranked Lions very nearly slayed a giant in the near-upset and sentiments after the game focused on positivity.
“My guys played a phenomenal game,” Stewart said.
“It’s heartbreaking in a sense that it ended, but again, the kids within 10 minutes were celebrating the season … It is what it is. You’re going to have winners and you’re going to have losers, but my guys are winners,” Stewart said firmly and proudly of a team that has met and exceeded expectations this season.
In the end, it was a tragic finish that served as a microcosm for exactly what makes this team’s season a success and there was no better example of it than Armstrong.
“[Oden] knew he just probably gave up the winning goal, but even with all that disappointment, he helped the kid up … Oden didn’t forget where he came from, Oden didn’t forget what my team’s about,” Stewart said.
Stewart has emphasized all season — and throughout his multi-decade career in the sport — that it’s about more than the game itself. It’s more than a collection of talent, individual effort on the field of play and a matter of wins and losses.
“I’ve been in this sport a long time and I’ve always told people, a lot of people can coach a team, but you have to develop a program,” Stewart said. “So, if my program can be a positive influence in [the players’] lives 24/7, 365 days, then that’s really my goal in life and that’s what I want to make sure my kids understand.”
After the season, Sky-Em All-League Honors were decided by the league’s coaches and eight Cottage Grove players were named.
Making First Team All-League was Fernando Soto-Cruz (sr.), Aldo Rea (fr.) and Shane Raum (sr.). Jayden Cameron (so.) and Evan Snauer (jr.) made Second Team All-League and Ty Kishen (so.), Cory Butts (jr.) and Jesus Torralba (fr.) were named to the Honorable Mention List.
The team also remains up for the 2019 OSAA Sportsmanship Award which will be decided after the conclusion of the state playoffs, though for Stewart, the verdict on his team’s 2019 season is already in.
“As far as I’m concerned we’ve won it already. My guys know how they are and who we are and how we act. For somebody else to pat us on the back, just even the nomination is great, but we’ve already won it in our eyes.”