CLEMSON, S.C. — When the NCAA soccer championship match between San Diego State and host Clemson ended Sunday afternoon, midfield became a place for for one side to celebrate, and for both teams to share warm embraces and gentlemenly handshakes.
"I had a lump in my throat, and, yes, there were tears when it was over," said Kyle Whittemore, a junior forward and the SDSU career leader with 58 goals. "I couldn't help but feel something special about what we had done."
The Aztecs lost the national title match, 2-0, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 8,352 at Riggs Field. The defeat ended a two-year streak of 46 matches without being shutout.
But while the immediate disappointment brought Whittemore to tears, the memories of the path that took the Aztecs to the edge of a championship season have begun to leave a different mark.
"For me, it's still a game and always will be a game," Whittemore said. "For 15 minutes after we lose, I'm so down. I don't want to talk to anybody. But when I look back and see how great our season was, how much fun we had, I realize we had a special year."
The Aztecs (20-6) were the bottom seed in the 24-team NCAA tournament field. They reached the final without the benefit of a home match. Their path was four weekend trips to St. Louis, to Southern Methodist in Dallas, to UCLA and finally to this small college town, site of the final four.
The Aztecs defeated Harvard in a shoot-out in the semifinals Saturday. The Tigers (18-5-1) finished 1-5-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and were seeded 23rd.
"Clemson just came out and rammed it down our throats," Whittemore said. "I don't know what happened. They came out so hard and so fast. They were beating us to every ball, winning every head ball. It was unbelievable."
The first Tiger goal came at 22:31 when defensemen Paul Rutenis headed a ball that deflected off the foot of SDSU defenseman Brad Walsh and past goalie Bryan Finnerty.
Finnerty said the vocal crowd contributed to the goal.
"I couldn't even talk to my defense out there," he said. "It's hard to communicate when all those people are screaming."
The crowd and pressure of a championship game might have affected the Aztecs early. This was SDSU's first tournament appearance since 1982 and the first time it had advanced past the second round.
The Aztecs did not get their first shot on goal until 35 minutes into the match. For the game, Clemson outshot the Aztecs, 13-6, and had a 9-2 advantage in corner kicks.
"They just took it to us," said Chuck Clegg, SDSU coach. "They outclassed us. We very fortunate to be down 1-0 at half. We played much better in the second half."
The Aztecs had three good scoring opportunities in the second half. Whittemore hit a point-blank shot into the chest of Clemson goalie Tim Genovese and two other shots flicked off the cage.
"When I heard metal, all I could think of is goal," Genovese said. "Then I saw the shot go wide, and was I happy."
The Tigers clinched the game when Rutenis passed downfield to midfielder Pearse Tormey who slipped a pass to striker Richard Richmond behind the SDSU defense. Richmond chipped the ball past Finnerty for the second goal with 41 seconds to play.
"That's when I knew it was up," Whittemore said. "Up to that point, I just knew we were going to score. I kept saying something good has to happen. Up until now, it always had."