As the Milton boys soccer team fought for the state championship title last Saturday, their coach was fighting for them, too – just not from the sidelines of the South Burlington field.
Blake Begnoche, a 2011 Milton High School graduate, spent the first half of the fall soccer season coaching on his home turf. Instead of taking a strong defensive stance against his opponent or clearing the ball up the field per coach Glen Button’s direction, he was coaching alongside Button.
An October 1 game versus Mt. Abraham marked Begnoche’s last game with the team, though. He was deployed on October 2 with the Vermont Air National Guard.
Even though Begnoche is overseas for up to eight months in an undisclosed location, the team didn’t forget everything he helped them accomplish. Instead, they used it as fuel.
“Let’s do this one for Blake. He’s fighting for us over there, let’s fight for him here,” said junior Cam Goodrich, referring to the team’s pre-game motto.
According to Goodrich, Begnoche brought a new defensive mindset to the team, which, in the end, became a family.
Button said he’s proud of his team and how they’ve supported Begnoche’s other role.
“I’m so proud of the guys and the way they’ve reacted and responded to all of this,” Button said last month. “To see them care about each other and one of their coaches the way they have, it’s pretty heartwarming. I think if we can continue this bond and stay together, we have a great shot of going all the way this year.”
With this hyped attitude and desire to win, the team did indeed make it to the finals but suffered a 4-0 loss to Lake Region Union High School last Saturday.
If the boys had snagged the W, they planned to place the championship banner on Begnoche’s porch to show the time he put in was worth it.
The airman had a different take on it.
“If I come home, I don’t want the banner on my porch,” he said in an online interview from overseas. “Those kids deserve to take all the credit for winning. I was just there to mentor them, to lead them and to give them someone to connect to.”
Because of Begnoche’s younger age and recent experience in the game, his players said he was easy to relate to. They learned from one another.
“I had to motivate a little differently than how I was motivated in the military,” Begnoche said. “Positive thinking and motivation really helped them find their identities as athletes and students.”
That came in many forms, one being a pre-game huddle where players jumped up and down with enthusiasm, getting blood and hype rushing through their veins.
When Begnoche traveled overseas, the huddles continued, and he sent motivational videos and messages to his team.
“He sent us a video, just telling us to stay positive and he believes in us,” Goodrich said. “It hit home almost because he was saying how sometimes in life, you have to do things you don’t want to. And this is one of those times for him. He wishes he could be here with us. So I feel like if we can bring it home for him, he’ll come home for us.”
Even without the title, Button said the final loss doesn’t define their season’s success.
“I’m proud of each one of them for what they have done this season,” Begnoche wrote. “They came a long way from where we started, and it has been great seeing that transformation.”
This involved a variety of Begnoche’s tactics, including what players referred to as “Navy Seal” training, Begnoche’s blank stare, his “what were you thinking” stance and his “we get better today” motto.
During practices, Goodrich and his counterparts remember Begnoche for his loud energy. During games, he didn’t really say much from the bench.
Senior Ryan Collette remembered the subtler coaching Begnoche provided. Goodrich said Begnoche was the type of coach to pull a player to the side and motivate them for the next play or drill.
“He helped me to believe in myself,” goalkeeper Alex Dooley said. “The confidence that he gave me definitely made a difference.”
His players said Begnoche drove them to be better.
“We talked about Blake everyday,” Button said, reflecting on the season. “He is sacrificing and doing something very important. We tried to sacrifice and leave it all out on the field and give our best effort every time we were out there.”