Saturday January 26, 2013

AUSTIN DANFORTH

Assistant Sports Editor

A potluck spread of desserts and snacks covered a long table at the back of the Immaculate Conception Parish Hall. Cookies, cupcakes and four different batches of brownies. At another table, off to the side, parents dished out salad, freshly delivered pizza and soft drinks. The room buzzed with conversation, smiles and last-minute preparations.

Dressed neatly for the occasion, hair done just so, the players sat at the front of the hall, near the stage flanked by two New York Class C girls soccer state title banners: 2011 hung stage-left, 2012 stage-right. Everyone else, family and friends, took a seat at one of the circular tables decorated in the royal blue and white of Hoosick Falls.

It was a party two months in the making.

There was the season video, a 55-minute collection of game highlights, action shots, candids, poses and an emotional Senior Day recording, that drew endearing "Awwws" throughout. Nostalgia -- for the Panthers' dominant, repeat championship -- and relief made it a Saturday night free from what-ifs, full of all-league, all-section and all-state honors after 117 goals and 21 wins. The most poignant remarks, about "heroism" and "valor," coming after the film and the awards, did not touch on tactics, or wins and losses.

That's because, at its core, this celebration had nothing -- and everything -- to do with soccer.

"This season was more perfect than anything.


Advertisement

We had the perfect team, the perfect coach -- he would do anything for us and we would do anything for him," said senior Alice Hayden.

"In the end, I'm glad [about] the way we ended everything, the way we went out," said senior Anna Restino. "In a way, we did it for him."

* * *

Returning nine starters and nine seniors from a 2011 championship team that went 20-1-2, Tom Husser had no shortage of reasons to look forward to 2012, his 12th season as Hoosick Falls' girls soccer coach. Forwards? Check. Midfield? Check. Defense? Check. Goalkeeper? Check.

Skilled, experienced and deep, it appeared their only weakness would be bad luck at the wrong time. The program's third state crown in eight years was not out of the question.

And so it was on the eve of the season that Husser, 57, approached a routine physical in late July, the routine part of which ended with the results of his Prostate-Specific Antigen test. Husser's doctor, concerned with the PSA levels, sent him to a specialist who suggested a biopsy.

"I went back the next week and the [doctor] goes, ‘Well, I've got bad news and good news,'" Husser said. "And I still didn't think anything of it, I'm too young.

"'The bad news is you've got cancer. The good news is if you're going to have it this is the best to have,'" he recalled. "But you don't hear that second part. You're just like, ‘Holy...'"

Like his father and grandfather -- and one in every six men, according to the National Cancer Institute -- Husser had developed prostate cancer. Caught early and slow-growing, there were options for treatment and, as it would turn out, precious flexibility.

Rather than the longer-course alternatives of brachytherapy, a radiation-based treatment better known as "seeding," or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, Husser decided to have surgery because, "I already kind of knew, at my age, I just wanted to have it out."

Yet, even with a gameplan, there was the timing of it.

It was already August and soccer tryouts loomed.

"I had no doubt about what he wanted to do. He asked me if it was OK to wait, but I knew he would want to put it off if possible," said Angela Husser, his wife of 34 years.

When the time came to consult the surgeon at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, Husser said he was ready to act immediately -- sacrificing a portion of the season -- if the doctor thought it would be foolish to wait.

"But I said, ‘You know, I've got this thing next week. It's going to sound weird but I coach a high school soccer team,'" Husser recalled. "'I'd read up on it a little bit and if this is a slow-growing cancer, if you tell me we've got to do this two weeks from now, let's go. But if I could wait until the end of the season '

"He goes, ‘Well, what are you thinking, like, late October?'

"I said no, like late November," Husser said. "My wife goes, ‘He thinks he's going to win the state championship. They did last year.'"

Another round of testing confirmed it would be possible to shelve the procedure until after the season. That much was settled.

Another decision remained:

"Do I tell the girls?"

* * *

Tom Husser lights up when he talks about his team. He's almost always on the brink of a smile.

"Total packages," he calls them, not just state champion soccer players but a New York scholar-athlete team as well, with at least a dozen players carrying a 90-average or better. A day after being interviewed for this story, he asked, "Is there any way this could be more about the team, about the program?"

A close-knit group, Husser and his players have crisscrossed New York on ambitious preseason and postseason trips. In the last four seasons, the senior class has gone 68-10-4. They have shared dinners and laughs, dramatic game-winners and even the frustration of the co-champion label forced on them after a scoreless 2011 state final against Friends Academy.

"All the girls complain to him about drama and school and stuff, and he actually gives us advice. He's always there for us. He's like the perfect role model as a coach and a father-figure," said senior forward Grace Delurey, the program's all-time leader in goals and assists. "We go to practice and we joke and goof around, and he disciplines us, but then he also knows how to have a good time.

"He takes us on so many trips and experiences we wouldn't be able to experience with other teams."

"He's just been there for me for everything," Alice Hayden said. "I can talk to him about anything -- if I have a problem with my family or friends or school, I can talk to him about it. I go over to his house just to spend time with him."

That type of bond made a complex decision quite simple.

"We had so many seniors and I'm close to all of the players. I just didn't want it to be, everyday, ‘You feeling alright?'" Husser said. "I didn't want my girls thinking, ‘Oh, we're playing this game and this [cancer] thing is going on.'

"Maybe they wouldn't have been that way, but I just didn't want them to have that on them.

"They're just a special group. And it's not just the seniors, either. It just keeps on going."

It was a recurring theme during the year.

Entering a game against Tamarac on Oct. 12, Husser's career record stood at 199 wins, 38 losses and nine ties in 11-plus seasons. Husser didn't bother to tell the team that the Bengals were poised to become a milestone victory. They figured it out on their own.

Arrangements were already under way for a post-game celebration near the field. The team hid a sign, made especially for the occasion, behind the bench. Hayden emailed the Banner to make sure someone knew their coach could notch No. 200 that day. Two minutes before the final whistle on a 6-1 victory, Delurey gave up the surprise while still on the pitch, shouting, "Two minutes until 200, Tom!"

"He wanted them to play the season for themselves. He wanted them to win a championship for themselves, not him," Angela Husser said. "For him, it's always about them."

In the weeks that followed, Hoosick Falls secured its league championship. Sectional and regional hardware followed with the Panthers thumping the competition to the tune of 30 goals for and one against in five playoff games.

The circle of those in the know widened slightly. The return trip to Cortland for the state semifinals was imminent, ripe with a Final Four rematch against Friends.

And the players still didn't know.

* * *

Alice Hayden doesn't remember what she ordered when the seniors met their coach for ice cream at Friendly's in Bennington the day before Thanksgiving. They were three days removed from a taut, 1-0 triumph against previously unbeaten Keshequa in the state championship game.

Repeat complete, there was one more thing to share.

"We thought we were going to talk about [championship] jackets or whatever," Anna Restino said.

The jackets were coming, sharp gray sweaters handed out at the team's banquet in the Parish Hall. But that wasn't on the agenda.

"We all looked around and were like, ‘You're kidding,'" Restino said.

"It was a complete shock that he had not told us and postponed his surgery just for us," Hayden said. "I've never met somebody who would do that for a group of girls. It was amazing, what he did."

Grace Delurey, brought down by the flu in the days following the final, couldn't make it to Friendly's. She found out later in the day.

"He called me after that meeting and he was like, ‘So I met with the seniors today...,' and said I was bummed, I was really looking forward to ice cream," said Delurey, voted the state player of the year in Class C this year after a 29-goal, 24-assist campaign.

Like her teammates, Delurey said she thought her coach was joking. Actually, he was due to have cancer surgery in six days.

"I think it's heroic, honestly, for him to put himself at risk. He knew he had cancer and he postponed [surgery] for three months," Delurey said.

None of the players interviewed said they could notice anything different about their coach as the season unfolded. After all, he is increasingly busy during the year as the chair of the Section II girls soccer committee, a state committee member, and owner of a graphics and screenprinting shop in Bennington that has both he and his wife working upwards of 80 hours a week.

"He was still the same Tom we all knew," Restino said.

It wasn't until the end of the season, the trophy secure, that Hayden, state player of the year as a defender in 2011, sensed something was amiss.

"During our state championship game, when we won he seemed really emotional this year and I felt like something was wrong," Hayden said. "Like he knew something and didn't want to tell us."

Admittedly, Husser, who was nursing a pulled leg muscle at the time, was slow to rejoin his team across the field after the season finale. Alone on the turf, his last interview complete, he made the "surreal" trip to the opposite end where about a dozen alumni, including some from his first team, were waiting, eager to touch the championship plaque and reminisce.

"They were there for the program, they were there for Hoosick Falls," he said. "That was one of my favorite moments."

In hindsight, it was a telling scene.

"When it took him time to come off that field in Cortland, I didn't know anything [then], but now looking back, I'm like, ‘Oh, wow, that really meant something,'" Restino said.

* * *

"I'd do it the same way again. Everything just fell perfectly. I'm happy that I didn't tell the kids. I'm happy they had their season," Husser said. "The way I drew it up in my mind was a happy ending."

Thirty-four goals in seven postseason games obliterated the team's previous record for goals in a season. Backed by all-state goalkeeper Hannah Fricke, the Panthers' defense pitched their second Final Four shutout in as many seasons.

"We gave up one goal in the whole seven-game run and that was a little bomb that a girl just turned and hit. Six freaking shutouts. It was unbelievable," said Husser, speaking as excitedly about the playoff masterpiece as the surgery that left him cancer-free.

But, not looking to broadcast the news, word of Husser's decision slowly spread around Hoosick Falls. His athletic director, Brett Lamy, heard about the situation from Superintendent Ken Facin.

"To be honest, I was shocked to the point of being numb. I couldn't believe a man would make that choice," said Lamy. "Personally, for me, if a doctor looked me in the eye and told me I needed surgery for prostate cancer I wouldn't have made the same decision.

"And that says a lot about who he is."

Facin thought the coach called him after the season to tell him about another school that sought his services.

"Alright, Husser, which college wants you now?" Facin remembers saying when he answered the phone.

"Even now, he's reluctant to speak to it," Facin said. "This is the kind of thing that I think will impact these kids for the rest of their lives."

* * *

Presents and praise flowed freely at the team's banquet earlier this month at the Immaculate Conception church. Each of the seniors received a gift bag and a large action poster bearing her likeness, among other items. When their turn came, they offered gag gifts for the underclassmen. Tissues for the next "team mother" and a spruce seedling for sophomore Rachel Pine were just two of them.

Then the attention turned to their coach, each senior reciting a passage of thanks. Like Husser before them, just when it appeared that emotion was about to halt a sentence in its tracks, there was a cough and a smile -- "hay fever" seemed to linger at the front of the room.

"It's really nice for me to see a team that expresses its appreciation. So often in life we appreciate things and don't express that," Angela Husser said. "That's what makes this team even more special."

But, with that sort of bond, there was no decision to make.

"We always dedicate the season to him because he's such a great coach and such a great guy and we're, like, his other daughters," Delurey said. "But after that, it's like, wow, he really cares about us. And winning a state title, we dedicate it all to him."

"It's positive," Restino said, "more than just soccer."