Was it just my imagination, or were there others who thought that something supernatural might have taken place Saturday at Angelo Fortunato Memorial Stadium?
It seemed to me that the Centennial Eagles' soccer team had a guardian angel looking after it in its 1-1 tie with Howard.
The Eagles, even though undefeated through a tough seven-game schedule, and ranked No. 2 in the Baltimore area by The Sun, had to be considered the underdog against an unbeaten and top-ranked Howard team that is the defending Class 3A state co-champion.
Howard had several reasons to feel confident: * It had already bumped off the pre-season favorite Oakland Mills, 3-2; * It had a 23-game unbeaten streak; and * It had beaten Centennial twice last year, including once in the regional finals.
Things looked bad early for the Eagles when Steve Sietsema, who scored the winning goal against Oakland Mills, banged home a 30-yarder just 12 minutes into the game for a 1-0 Howard lead.
Centennial is the type of team that likes to score first, and then play lockjaw, snapping-turtle defense.
It didn't look like Centennial's lucky day.
Both defenses played well. Armstrong was uncanny at heading out Centennial start-up kicks and corners. Howard fullback Chris Smith seemed to be everywhere.
Centennial sweeper Ted Oh played impressively with lots of fire and determination. So did midfielder Tam Lam, assigned to mark Sietsema the entire game. Lam, who drew one yellow card for roughness, was not afraid to put his small but tough body on the line.
Other than Sietsema's goal, the game looked even. Centennial was playing its best. Howard didn't seem to be at the tip-top of its game, but it was playing well enough to win.
The guardian angel idea came to me when I first entered the stadium at Centennial about a half hour before game time. Maybe I've seen "Field of Dreams" too many times.
Fortunato was a popular principal who opened Centennial in 1977. Sadly, he lived only two more years. When he died Sept. 3, 1979, he was only 47.
Fortunato loved sports. He refereed college football games, and when he hired that first teaching staff at Centennial he made sure he recruited some top-notch coaches.
So when he died, it seemed fitting that the athletic field be named after him. A brick monument surrounded by a flower bed is dedicated to Fortunato at the stadium entrance.
As I looked at the monument Saturday, I smiled, remembering Fortunato's great enthusiasm.
I told myself that if there's a heaven, then the Eagles probably would need Fortunato's help this afternoon. They built this monument, so maybe Angie would come.
When Josh Smith made a side throw-in during the 30th minute, and the ball was kicked with machine-gun speed back and forth in front of the Centennial goal without going in, I thought about Angie. There's one for you, big guy. I had counted six kicks toward the goal.
Then, in the 35th minute, when Jon Armstrong was yellow-carded for delay of game as he prepared a goal kick, I looked skyward again to see if I could catch a glimpse of that big smiling Italian mug.
I had never seen such a call made before, especially so early in the game.
Howard coach Rudy Storch was irate, and yelled toward the official, "That's the most ridiculous call I've seen in my life." That remark got Storch a yellow card.
The official who made the call explained that he wouldn't have called it, but Armstrong re-set the ball for no apparent reason after delaying a long time. He thought Armstrong was stalling for a teammate to break free downfield, and shouldn't be allowed that unfair advantage.
It was a significant call, because Armstrong is so important a player for Howard, and a second yellow card would result in his ejection.
The second half picked up where the first left off, with both teams kicking long balls and trying to score off of dead-ball situations.
In the 70th minute, Fortunato smiled on Centennial again.
Sietsema broke open at the 20-yard line and was ready to drill in another goal, a game-clincher. But Austin Groves somehow caught Sietsema and kicked the ball away. Don't ask me how.
It was like the "miraculous reception" catch that New York Met Ron Swoboda made in the 1969 World Series, when the Mets upset the Orioles.
I felt like something big was going to happen after that. Fortunato was here for sure.
The teams pounded away at each other's goal without scoring.
Finally, Josh Baer, a tempestuous junior midfielder with lots of speed, fielded a finely threaded lead pass between two Howard defenders and raced beyond midfield toward the Howard goal. It was the 78th minute of the 80-minute contest.
At the 30-yard line, Baer suddenly went down like a rolling 150-pound sack of potatoes.
The call went against Armstrong, who had grabbed Baer's jersey and yanked him to the ground.