“You told us, man,” Escobar said. “You told us we were going to win this. That this was the year.”
Villalta put the hard plastic shin guards in his mouth and bit down hard, hoping to stop more tears from coming.
The night had been overwhelming. Villalta’s team had just captured its first D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title since 2015 in the most dramatic fashion, scoring a last-second goal to topple Wilson, 2-1.
“It’s emotional, man,” Villalta said. “We wanted this bad. We lost our first three games of the season, and everybody doubted us. But we never doubted ourselves.”
The Tigers (10-3), consistently the team to beat in the DCIAA, had come into the game undefeated in league play. They had defeated Bell (8-4-1) by six goals just a few weeks earlier. According to Griffins Coach Victor Molina, that was a mistake-filled game that simply got out of hand. But to prove that it was an aberration, the Griffins had to make adjustments and show resilience.
They did just that Thursday, looking energized and hungry even after Wilson took a 1-0 lead late in the first half. Villalta provided a stunning equalizer early in the second on a free kick from just outside the penalty box. Two teammates made a mini-wall in front of the senior, meant to shield the defense from his plans. Villalta approached the ball, and his teammates parted at the last second, giving him enough room to send a crisp, curling ball just inside the near post.
“We’ve been practicing that for the last weeks, and I just let it go,” Villalta said. “Most of my free kicks, I overthink, but I figured I would just let that one rip. And what a beauty!”
From there, the game grew tense, and it seemed that extra time was inevitable. But Bell kept pushing, eventually getting the ball to midfielder Noe Santiago on the left side of the box. The junior made a brisk run to the touch line and then cut the ball back to the middle of the field. There, having emerged from a mess of bodies and waiting to slam it home, was senior forward Mamadou Diabate.
“There’s no better feeling,” Diabate said. “To be there at the right place, right time for a cut back, you can see it happen before it happens. It’s a surreal feeling. This is all surreal.”