Mustangs take heart

Players on the C. Milton Wright girls soccer team applied the teachings of coach Paul Austin after he suffered a stroke the week of the state final.


For C. Milton Wright girls soccer coach Paul Austin, the game and the competition do not define his life. A pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Joppa, Austin works tirelessly at teaching his players "life lessons" he hopes they can use both on and off the soccer field.

Austin often tells his girls to face life's problems head on and to keep moving forward. The Mustangs were forced to apply what they'd learned during a roller-coaster week in mid-November, which ended with them winning the Class 4A state championship with a 1-0 upset over Walt Whitman at UMBC.

During that week, the team grew together and moved forward after Austin suffered a mild stroke on a Monday night. Austin was hospitalized for three days and didn't think he'd be able to coach or even attend the game. Facing the possibility of not having their coach forced the girls and assistant coaches Brent Ritz and Len Nicewonger to form even stronger bonds as they prepared for the defending state champions from Montgomery County.

Austin said the team gradually grew closer throughout the season, as the players participated in numerous off-the-field activities together. "The girls could really lean on each other and really believe in each other," Austin, 42, said. "I think that the type of relationship they built all year really helped carry them through that last week."

The problems began that Monday night, four days before the game. Austin had run practice and was at a church meeting when the first signs of trouble came. He knew what it was because he had suffered a stroke last April that took about eight weeks to recover from.

Austin, who also battled testicular cancer three years ago, began having trouble speaking and lost the use of an arm. People at the meeting quickly called an ambulance, and he was taken to University Hospital. The episode lasted just 30 seconds.

Austin had suffered a transient ischemic attack, a synonym for mini-strokes. They occur when the blood supply to some part of the brain is briefly interrupted. The symptoms happen quickly and are like those of a stroke, but they don't last as long.

Austin called Nicewonger the next day to tell him what happened. Nicewonger and Ritz sat the girls down at practice that Tuesday to give them the details and then sent them right home. Some players didn't find out until the next day, like goalie Katie Kolb and top scorer Greta Houlihan, as they were excused from practice.

Understandably, the news shocked them.

"It was really stressful at first," Kolb said. "We all love Coach, and everyone's mind was somewhat on Coach. We were already strong as it is. This just brought us slightly more together."

An already difficult week was made worse when rain shortened the Wednesday practice to only 30 minutes. Ritz and Nicewonger then put the team through an unusually tough practice on Thursday - something they rarely did the day before a game - because the Mustangs hadn't worked much all week and needed to get focused.

Meanwhile, Austin was trying to decide if he was up to coaching the game, or, at least, attending it. His doctors had cleared him to coach, but he still felt tired and didn't know if he could give 100 percent. Austin felt his presence could have caused a distraction in the middle of a state title game. So he decided to let Ritz, Nicewonger and former coach Gary Ritz (Brent's father) lead the team.

Austin went back and forth several times about coming to the game as a spectator, but he decided that Friday afternoon against it. He wrote an emotional letter that Brent Ritz read to the Mustangs about 45 minutes before the game.

All of the players cried.

"I was thinking about him the whole game," Houlihan said. "He's the one that led us this far, and we felt we had to do it for him. He would do anything for the girls or anybody, and [deciding not to coach] was just trying to do what's best for the team, and it worked out in the end."

The players weren't expecting to see Austin, but his wife, Jennifer, told him he'd always regret not being there. So the couple began the drive to Catonsville.

The coaches had all agreed that the Mustangs could win the championship if they weren't trailing by halftime, and Whitman and the Mustangs were locked in a scoreless tie at the break. Brent Ritz said that really fired up the players.

"They decided that, `We're in the game now. We can play with these guys. Let's win it for Coach, " Ritz said.

The Austins, however, were delayed by rush-hour traffic, although the coach was getting game updates on his cell phone.

He arrived minutes after Lyndsie Ludwig scored early in the second half to give C. Milton Wright a 1-0 lead. Austin quietly made his way into the stadium and stayed behind a fence, not wanting anyone from the school to see him. Brent Ritz noticed Austin for the first time when making a substitution, but Austin put a finger to his lips, mouthing, "Shhhh."

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