---- — By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
HERSHEY -- The bus ride to Hamburg from Catawissa on Tuesday evening wasn't like most.
Instead of listening to music, talking, joking around or even grabbing a quick nap prior to their game, the Southern Columbia girls were busy reading.
There before them on the team bus was a folder filled with inspirational quotes and messages from Southern Columbia coaches, faculty members, alumni and even some players and coaches of teams they played this year.
"All these people that are from our community (and) not from our community, from Penn State camp we went to, (everyone) giving us these words of motivation and wisdom and telling us how they've gotten so close when they were in high school and they didn't quite make it," senior all-state forward Bailey Bzdak said after Tuesday's 1-0 semifinal win over Tulpehocken. "It's awesome. Our community is so supportive of everything."
Two years ago when the Southern Columbia softball team made it to the PIAA Class A state championship game, their assistant coach, Tricia Hoffman, gathered together some inspirational messages and quotes from coaches, teachers, former athletes and alumni to give to them prior to their semifinal game. It was something the softball team found very motivating.
This year, when the Tigers soccer team earned a trip to the state semifinals for the first time since 2002, Hoffman did the same, gathering quotes and messages.
So there on the team bus, for roughly an hour and a half on the ride to Hamburg, that's what the Southern Columbia girls read: over 50 messages of support from their community wishing them success.
"We had inspirational letters from all kinds of people coming up on the bus," Southern Columbia coach Derek Stine said. "Everybody was really into this. The ride's been great."
Some of those letters came from recent graduates, like Mallory Tomaschik and Kirstin Blass -- both members of the 2012 Tigers softball Class A finalists -- who offered their own advice on how to deal with the nerves and anxiety of being in a state semifinal from their own experiences. Others came from players long before these girls started playing, such as Becky Stametz, a member of the 1998 District 4 champion Tigers soccer team.
High school coaches like six-time state champion Jim Roth (who knows a thing or two about winning the big game) and current boys coach Dave Hall wrote the girls messages. Even college coaches like UMass-Lowell's women's coach, Joel Bancroft, and Bucknell soccer coach Ben Landis offered advice and words of wisdom.
Every letter showed nothing but support, admiration and pride for what the Tigers have accomplished this year. All of those 50-plus letters had the same underlying messages: Don't take the opportunity for granted; play your hearts out on the field; and make Southern Columbia girls soccer history.
Even New York Giants fullback and Super Bowl champion Henry Hynoski tweeted a congratulations to the Southern Columbia girls on winning the District 4 banner this season.
While those messages were more than appreciated by the Tigers, maybe the one they cherished a little bit more came from their own assistant coach, Jen Stine.
Stine knew exactly what the girls were feeling on the ride to Hamburg. She had been to the PIAA state semifinals on two occasions during her high school career, but never made a trip to Hershey to play for the championship like this group of girls will today.
Stine recalled, in her four-page letter, asking the current Southern seniors when they were in seventh grade what they wanted to accomplish. They all had individual goals -- to be the scoring leader at Southern or to be named all-state -- but they all wanted to be one thing in the end: a state champion.
"A majority of these goals have already been achieved, but that one underlying team goal, what you have committed yourself to for years has still eluded us," Stine wrote in her letter to the team.
The Tigers are now on the brink of capturing that elusive goal, something the seniors jotted down before the season started as a goal they wanted to achieve in addition to winning league and district titles.
The Southern Columbia girls already made school history by getting to the PIAA Class A championship. But here's guessing they probably want to make history just one more time by leaving Hershey tonight with some gold draped around their necks.
n Jon Gerardi covers high school soccer for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JonGerardi.