Everyone knows that sports are quantified in wins and losses. The teams with the best records make the playoffs, and teams that make the playoffs can win a championship. Every game matters in the quest for winning.
But sometimes, life is more important than a game.
On the night of the 14th annual Danny Dahlquist Memorial Game, which ended in a serendipitous 1-1 draw, that sentiment could not have rang more true. On one sideline was Bradley soccer head coach Jim DeRose and his 26 years of experience. On the other sideline was DeRose’s longtime assistant coach, Brad Ruzzo, as well as DeRose’s son, JR, coaching the Mercer Bears.
“To have my son over there and one of my closest friends who was the associate head coach when we won a lot of these trophies was special,” Jim DeRose said.
It was equally special for his son, who played four years for the Bears before becoming assistant coach prior to this season. While he’s previously played at Bradley as a visitor and has been on the same sideline as his dad countless times, coaching against the Braves’ head coach was a different experience.
“You can’t really prep yourself, obviously,” JR DeRose said. “I know his behaviors and how he acts but it’s different when you’re so close and the blood gets up a little bit. It’s really exciting.”
Ruzzo is also glad to be back, returning to the field he oversaw as associate head coach from 2000 to 2007.
“It’s special to be back here,” Ruzzo said. “I’m glad we were able to be part of this special night.”
As special as the reunion was, both sides would agree that Sunday night at Shea Stadium was about more than the DeRoses, Ruzzo or even Dahlquist. The teams also honored Baba Agbaje, a Mercer soccer player who died after collapsing on the field during a pick-up game earlier this year. As Agbaje’s brother looked on from the Bears’ sideline, Bradley honored both Agbaje and Dahlquist before the contest.
“Everybody has been so gracious,” Ruzzo said. “The game kind of came to fruition just naturally in how everything happened. We couldn’t be more thankful for them to do that.”
The teams even got together for a picture at midfield before the game, putting their arm over the guy next to them no matter what color their jersey was.
“Everybody in their life has lost someone close to them and many people have lost young people close to them,” Jim DeRose said. “That picture is just a way for all of us to say at the end of the day, we’re all someone’s son and brother and grandson, so that’s what that’s about.”
Things got started quickly once the game was on, as a foul from Bradley freshman Nathaniel Isom set up a Mercer free kick on the first possession of the game. The Bears capitalized and turned it into a header into the back of the net, but the play was whistled dead for offsides.
Mercer got another good chance in the 13th minute, as a long throw-in towards the goal hit off two Bears before being snatched in the air by Bradley junior goalkeeper Alex Grow. In the 25th minute, another throw-in led to a shot by Mercer’s Kadeem Agard, which sailed wide left.
“We came out with good energy,” Ruzzo said. “The game was kind of going the way that I thought it would.”
Bradley had their fair share of chances as well. After a nifty run in the 20th minute by DJ Koulai, the freshman cracked a shot at the left side of the goal that was saved by Mercer keeper Trevor McMullen. All in all, the Bears outshot the Braves 4-3 in the first half, but Bradley had eight corners to Mercer’s two.
The 37th minute was when the Bears struck.
Following a goal kick possessed by the visitors, Mercer pushed upfield and found Omar Hernandez in the middle, whose left foot struck the ball just outside the penalty area and put it past the outstretched arm of Grow to give the Bears the lead. It was the first halftime deficit the Braves have faced all season.
“They’re so good going forward,” Jim DeRose said of the opposition. “They’re athletic and they’re mobile so I thought we could have done a little bit better in terms of just being a little more disciplined in those moments.”
It was Bradley’s turn to up the energy in the second half, as they had possession for the majority of the period’s beginning. Shots by junior Kevin Mejias and Koulai could not find the net, but in the 53rd minute junior Jared Sinnaeve sent a scorcher from well outside the box into the top-left corner of the goal, evening the score for the home team.
“I figured I had to take it one time,” Sinnaeve said. “I had a few of those in the past few games and I kept hitting under it and it would go over the bar, so I made a little adjustment, kept my chest over it and took a strike at it and it ended up top left so I was pretty excited about that.”
The goal was good enough to capture the third spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays, as Sinnaeve’s second score of the year brought Bradley back in it. He even added a “shush” celebration to go along with it as his teammates mobbed him.
“You know, I saw the camera, ran over with my boys and celebrated like crazy,” Sinnaeve said.
“The goal was so spectacular,” Jim DeRose said. “It was energized after that.”
With the final 30 minutes up for grabs, each team traded kick after kick to try and gain an advantage. Corners and shots and saves abounded, but neither team could come up with the winning goal as time expired.
“It was nice to come around with one point instead of zero so I’ll take that,” Sinnaeve said.
With the draw, the Braves continue their undefeated start to the season, their best since 2011. They are one of three undefeated teams left in the Valley, and their experienced head coach says the depth, talent and a plethora of newcomers has kept them alive despite numerous injuries.
“They’re excited to be out here and it’s kind of that great mesh of the old and the new,” Jim DeRose said.
As for the younger DeRose, conversations with his dad can return to normal.
“We kind of tried to avoid talking about [the game],” JR DeRose said. “The last couple days [we] kept the cards a little closer to the vest, but then tomorrow it’ll all be good again.”
So, with both teams reeling from tragedy and turmoil, it was only right that Sunday’s back-and-forth affair ended in a draw. At the end of the day, family overtakes everything.
“The game is the game once it starts but the weekend and just being with those people was special,” Jim DeRose said.