For a brief moment, Rafael Celanti hung his head.
All the dreams of a deep playoff run seemed to vanish with the raising of a red card.
No. 3 Newfield was already trailing No. 14 Lindenhurst by a goal in the 18th minute when Michael DiDominico was ejected. If the Wolverines were going to secure the program’s first playoff victory since 2007, they would need to do so in come-from-behind fashion with a man down.
“Once he got that red card,” Celanti said, “we felt like we were done.”
Fred Koelbl wasn’t on the sideline. He hasn’t been there for about four weeks, since he was diagnosed with liver cancer. But the message the volunteer assistant has conveyed to his players through phone calls and home visits sparked the improbable.
“He says never give up and he’ll never give up,” senior John Alves said.
Olvin Yanes scored six minutes before halftime, Celanti scored his second goal in the top-right corner in the 55th minute and Newfield advanced with a 3-2 victory. The Wolverines will face No. 6 Commack Friday in the quarterfinals.
“These kids are fighting for him,” said Newfield coach Jamie Santiago, who received permission from Koelbl, 71, to share his story. “Most teams would have put their heads down and been like woe is us. They just gutted it out.”
As they have ever since Koelbl was diagnosed. Newfield (14-1-1) has not lost since Sept. 8.
“Seeing coach (Koelbl) every single day to barely seeing him once a week, it’s tough on us,” Alves said. “We’re going to keep fighting for him. We talk to him on the phone every day and tell him to keep fighting and he tells us to keep fighting.”
After Newfield clinched the Suffolk III title on Oct. 19, the team boarded a bus and visited Koelbl at his home. They talked soccer, took pictures and shared words of encouragement. Everyone involved is hoping they can make a similar visit on Nov. 3, the date of the county final.
“We’re going to fight for him,” Celanti said, “and hopefully make it to the finals and bring it home.”