Bristol, R.I. — All season, they drew inspiration and strength from playing to honor former Coast Guard Academy men's soccer player Thomas Cameron.
The Bears ended a memorable and emotional season with one final tribute on Sunday.
After a fiercely competitive 110 minutes of scoreless soccer that included two overtime periods, Coast Guard finished off its mission by beating host Roger Williams University on penalty kicks (4-2) to win the ECAC New England Division III championship.
The dramatic victory came four years to the day from when Cameron led the Bears to their last ECAC title. Cameron died in a helicopter training mission accident in February.
"It's a storybook ending," said senior Greg Kennerley who played during Cameron's one year as an assistant coach in 2009. "The last time we won an ECAC as a team was Thomas' senior year. It was honestly destiny. … We knew it all along that we were playing for him."
As a way to pay tribute to Cameron, Kennerley was chosen to wear Cameron's number 12 this season.
During the postgame celebration, the Bears posed for a picture and shouted in unison, "TC 12."
"It's a huge thing, actually, from my point of view," coach Chris Parsons said. "We were definitely motivated by it all season. I guess, in the end, he helped us see it through."
Coast Guard (13-6-2) delivered in the clutch during penalty kicks.
Freshman Alexander Lane coolly buried a shot in the lower right side in the fifth round to clinch the title.
Lane wasn't on Parsons' initial list of penalty shot takers but an injury to junior Matt Epperly forced a change.
"He's a pretty cool customer," Parsons said, "so I didn't worry too much."
Goalie Richie Burns, who's had a superb sophomore season, gave Lane a chance to score the game winner by making a diving save on Bradley McDonald's shot with Coast Guard holding a 3-2 edge in the fourth round.
"Richie really inspired me to make that shot," Lane said.
With the Bears shooting first, Kennerley set the tone by firing high into the left corner. Walter Heaney converted his attempt and fellow junior John Rendon, the ECAC tournament most outstanding player, scored in the fourth round for a 3-2 edge before Burns' big save.
"If your shooters do what they're supposed to do, you just need to stop one," Burns said.
The second-seeded Bears and top-seeded Hawks (17-5-1) waged a grueling physical battle from the start. The teams traded hard fouls and icy glares.
The style of play suited the Bears, who rely on wearing down opponents. They gradually assumed control of the play, disrupting RWU's rhythm with constant pressure.
"Our physical ability, I don't think they were used to playing against that," Parsons said. "We're a difficult team to play against."
Coast Guard had the edge in play and better of limited scoring opportunities but failed to convert. In the first half, RWU goalie Jon Pelloso tipped Epperly's close-range header over the bar and an offside call wiped out a CGA goal a few minutes before intermission.
In the 70th minute, CGA freshman Lukas Benedetto banged a shot off the crossbar. Pelloso made a terrific save on sophomore John Tarzian's header in the final seconds of regulation. Benedetto nailed the top of the crossbar in the first overtime.
"I thought we had the better of (play) all the way," Parsons said. "If you were going to give somebody the decision, you would have given it to us."
Burns was sharp and alert, racing out on a couple of occasions to grab dangerous balls in the box. His best save came late in the second half as he slid to block Trevor Hoxsie's break-in. A little luck helped, too, as Andrew Carlson misfired on a short breakaway early in the game.
Fatigue began to take its toll during the two 10-minute overtime periods, as both teams struggled to maintain any consistency.
In the end, the Bears had more to play for, wanting to pay tribute to Cameron. It is the program's fourth ECAC title.