They never gave up, they never gave in, and they emerged champions.

The QC Rush U11 team had a tough road to travel during the East Moline Labor Day Soccer Tournament. The undefeated (7-0-1) Rush, ranked #4 in Illinois according to the last GotSoccer ratings going into the tournament, were not only playing up against U12 teams, but they had the hardest draw in the tournament, playing against two, and ultimately three, of the top ten U12 teams in the state to get to the finals, and to win the gold.

But the Rush, in their inaugural season, has proven that they never back down from challenges.

Their first game Saturday morning turned out to be their easiest, against the Geneseo U12 team, the only team they faced off against not ranked in the top ten. But still, playing against kids a year older, most of whom were taller and bigger, and playing without their starting striker, Elijah DeLaCruz, was bound to be a challenge, and it proved to be, through the first third of the game.

The Rush rushed out to dominate possession and shots, peppering the Geneseo goalie, but couldn’t get anything going until Joey Miniter made a perfect crossing pass to Jackson Leary and Leary buried it in the goal for a 1-0 Rush lead. But Geneseo, making like Shania Twain, said “that don’t impress me much,” and quickly rebounded with a goal of their own to tie the game at 1-1.

That’s when the Rush made like LL Cool J though, and punched back, singing “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Leary returned the favor with an assist to Miniter slamming in a goal for a 2-1 lead. Leary punched in another goal from distance and rolled it to 3-1. Miguel Garcia launched one from outside the 18 that zoomed to net and it was 4-1 at half. The second half was more of the same as goals poured in. Sayden Williams emerged from goal to slam in a penalty kick to the top bins to make it 5-1.  Connor Wehr rocketed a free kick over the wall and the goalie for a 6-1 tally. And Bodhi Morales followed up a ricochet save on an Aydin Caras-O’Neal shot to run it to 7-1 and the Rush got off in a rush to start the tourney.

The team knew the next game was going to be a lot more difficult, and it certainly was.

Facing off against an East Moline team comprised of a combination of U11 and U12 players, the Rush knew they were going to be up for a big game. Ranked #7 in the state, East Moline’s U11s had given the Rush all they could handle the previous weekend as the Rush prevailed 3-1 in a hard-fought contest. And with talent mingled in from the U12 level, this East Moline squad was even more formidable.

They showed that quickly, as they ripped off to a quick 3-0 lead on a Rush team that looked sluggish to start. The Rush needed to dig down and stay mentally tough to hang with them and claw back, and they did. Jackson Leary got the scoring started with a rebound shot, ripping the goal past the goaltender after he’d made a quick save off an Elijah DeLaCruz scorcher. Joey Miniter crashed the goal off a Jonas Cortez corner and forced in another tally for a 3-2 score. Then DeLaCruz got a strong crossing pass from Leary and drove in to nail a shot past the East Moline goalie to draw it even at 3-3 at half.

The second half was a nail-biter, with two heavyweights giving it their all, smashing at each other, each going for the knockout punch, hoping to end the battle on top.

East Moline struck first, with a deadly launch from distance to make it 4-3 just minutes into the second half.

But, as they would do throughout the tournament, instead of getting down, the Rush got focused, got energized, and got even.

A frenzied press resulted in a peppering of shots against the East Moline goalie, but he hung tough, until the Rush were finally able to catch a break. Off a corner from Jonas Cortez, Leary kneed it on line to the goal but the East Moline goalie made a great save punching it back. DeLaCruz was on the rebound and launched it back at the goal, but once more, the East Moline goalie hung strong, knocking it off line and back to the far end of the box. But then, the Rush luck turned, as the rebound launched towards Paul Dzudu, muscled into the box from the defensive end, who kicked the rebound into the back of the net for a 4-4 tie.

The momentum shifted then in a big way, as the Rush saw an avalanche of opportunities open up, but which just didn’t pan out.

The run started when Miniter made a run along the far left side, drawing the goalie over, before making a great cross pass to Leary, who knocked it in for what seemed to be a 5-4 lead.

But, nope, it was called back as Leary was whistled for offsides.

The next break seemed even more heartbreakingly pulled away.

Miniter kept up the pressure, finding his way through two defenders into the box where he lined up a shot before being shoved off line and to the ground. A whistle and a foul, and Miniter found himself with a penalty kick.

He walked back, the goalie girded himself, Miniter advanced and calmly punched the shot in, and, again, it seemed to be a 5-4 Rush lead.

But, nope, it was called back as Miniter was cited for not waiting until the referee’s whistle to take the shot.

Miniter once more lined up the shot, walked back, but, perhaps feeling the pressure of a second penalty chance, he shanked the shot off right, missing the goal. And still it was 4-4.

Could the third time be the charm for the Rush though? Another opportunity, as Elijah DeLaCruz raced after a booming clear from Connor Wehr, speeding out to beat the goalie by a split second and launching a looping chip shot over the goalie and towards the net… but no! Just barely over the bar. And still it was 4-4.

A few moments later, perhaps deflated by missed opportunities, the Rush let up and East Moline blew past with another strike to make it 5-4. At that point, again, it seemed as if the Rush’s magical run was over.

The clock was running down. Less than five minutes remained. If the Rush lost, they would be going into day two with a 1-1 record and possibly knocked out of contention for the championship round.

But with just a little more than three minutes left, the Rush dug deep and proved to have the heart of a champion.

It started with a tough stand by Dzudu in the defensive end, which led to a mistake by the East Moline forward losing the ball and a clear by sweeper Adam Jack up to Jonas Cortez on the far left wing. Cortez had space in front of him and carried it up past the half line, his head up looking for a pass.

And he found it.

With magnificent precision, Cortez lofted a magical diagonal cross over the heads of three East Moline defenders to catch Leary flying in towards the 18 on the far post. Leary made a fantastic first touch on the ball to strike it before it even touched the ground and in one quick motion curved a magisterial shot into the far top bins away from the quickly advancing goalie to knot the score at 5-5 and keep the Rush’s hopes alive.

A tie would help them advance, a win would clinch it. But the clock was ticking.

The Rush kept up the pressure, swarming the box and rocketing the tough East Moline goalie with shots, but he was too tough and kept nailing saves, shutting the door, until finally, the Rush caught a break, as an Elijah DeLaCruz shot ended up catching the hand of an East Moline defender shielding the net. The referee called a hand ball within the box, setting up a penalty kick with just a little under two minutes remaining.

DeLaCruz coldly lined it up and cruelly stuck the dagger in.

Two minutes left, 6-5 Rush.

East Moline made a desperate blitz to pressure for a knotting goal, but the steel wall defense of Connor Wehr, Paul Dzudu, Adam Jack and Adam Donaldson held up, aided by iron-clad play from the front four of Miniter, Leary, Cortez and DeLaCruz. And it was a Rush team at 2-0 in the tourney heading into day two against a top-ranked Peoria team fighting for their own chances at the title game with a 1-0-1 record going into their matchup.

The Rush seemed to like their chances going into the early Sunday morning matchup, perhaps a bit too much, as they came out slow and muddy for the morning game. Peoria punished them with cruelty with three quick goals and another 3-0 deficit, before Miniter finally broke through for a screamer that made it 3-1. But all too quickly, Peoria ripped a long shot past Rush goalie Sayden Williams and it was a daunting 4-1 with just minutes left in the half.

Not wanting to roll into halftime down three, the Rush put on the pressure, moving Garcia up to left midfield and Miniter to defensive mid, with Cortez pushed back to stopper to fortify the defense and allow the front four of Garcia, Miniter, Leary and DeLaCruz to push the tempo.

It paid off. Cortez hit Garcia roaring down the left side and Garcia drilled a shot at goal. The goalie anticipated it and batted it away, but Leary was there for the rebound. He whaled one shot at goal which the goalie blocked, but then followed up with even more authority, slamming it past the outstretched grasp of the goalie to draw the Rush within 4-2 at half.

Still, it wasn’t looking good, as momentum seemed to be on Peoria’s side to start the second half as they once more dominated on the ball and the shot count, pushing Williams to the limit. Things weren’t looking good for the Rush.

With ten minutes remaining, it was still 4-2, when Peoria started to fade and the Rush dug down deep and pulled out the guts for the victory.

It began with DeLaCruz driving down the right side deep into the corner and launching a brilliant shot over the outstretched goalie to draw the Rush to 4-3, then continued with Garcia hitting from long on the left side to knot the score 4-4.

With five minutes remaining, Garcia was looking to put the Rush on top, driving hard down the far left side, before looking up to deliver a strong cross to the box. Jackson Leary stepped up and caught the pass midair with his chest, thumping it into the goal for a seeming 5-4 lead.

But… no! Leary was whistled for offsides and the goal was disallowed. Still 4-4.

The teams traded shots as the ball whipped back and forth, both teams looking to gain an advantage, to find their way to a victory, until with just a little over a minute left, the Rush broke it open.

Cortez made another fantastic crossing pass, this time to DeLaCruz down the side, who deked through two players towards the goal, putting a hard shot on the net. The goalie batted it back into the box, but not far enough, as Leary, blazing down the field, sizzled the shot into the goal off the rebound, giving the Rush a 5-4 lead with just seconds on the clock.

The Rush held tough against Peoria’s final barrage, and for the second game in a row, as the whistle sounded, they celebrated a gutty and inspirational win, never giving up and coming back from three goals down to take the victory. And at 3-0 for the tourney, they headed to the championship, against a Jacksonville team ranked #3 in the state at the U12 level which had massacred their opponents in the opposite bracket, North Scott in an 8-1 bloodbath, and QC Legends in a 5-2 bullying.

Going into the final game, the Rush looked undermanned and overmatched against a Jacksonville squad that featured an army of players much taller and bigger than the Rush. But it was a case of David vs. Goliath, with the same results.

Just a few minutes into the game, the Rush struck first, on a beautiful goal. Jackson Leary threw the ball in from the far right sideline to Jonas Cortez, and without the ball even touching the ground, Cortez perfectly timed his strike to catch Leary’s throw-in and send it sailing to the far top bins of the left end of the goal for a 1-0 lead. The quick score seemed to set Jacksonville back on its heels, like an unexpectedly powerful uppercut from an underdog boxer.

Jacksonville nevertheless went back to work, moving the ball with precision and getting off a handful of shots, saved by Rush goalie Sayden Williams, who was dialed in and ready for action.

The Rush defensive backfield of Wehr, Dzudu, Jack and Cortez was tough and gritty throughout, pushing the bigger Jacksonville players off their shots and zipping into passing lanes to cut off breaks, as midfielders Leary and Miniter bodied up and stood up to the Jacksonville pressure to cut things off at the midpoint and slow them down, igniting the break the other way.

So it went with the Rush’s second goal, as Leary zipped in to intercept a pass and send it up to forward DeLaCruz on the break. DeLaCruz drove down towards the left corner, before cutting back and opening up space to hit Leary with a perfect crossing pass. Leary put a good left foot on it, sending a rocket to the goal, but the goalie made a diving stop, punching it away from paydirt. But DeLaCruz, hustling smartly, had followed up his pass and crashed the box, and was there for the rebound, smacking it in to give the Rush a 2-0 lead.

The Rush’s third goal was an amazing surprise to both teams. Just before half, the Jacksonville goalie punted the ball out of his box, but his kick lofted short, just into the middle of his zone. Aggressively crashing in, forward Aydin Caras-O’Neal caught it mid-air and with one perfect kick drilled it back and over the head of the goalie to find net for a 3-0 lead going into the half. The Rush players swarmed him with cheers and smiles and it was looking like the Rush could start clearing off a spot in the trophy case.

Jacksonville seemed defeated and deflated. But could the lead hold?

The Rush went conservative in the second half to hold back the attack of Jacksonville, shifting to a more defensive alignment and altering their usual aggressive counterattacking mode. Instead of looking to ignite the break, the Rush played it safe, looking to knock the ball from play and slow things down, gumming up the passing lanes and keeping Jacksonville on the periphery.

The plan worked, keeping Jacksonville on the periphery of the zone taking long shots, until one of them went in against Williams to draw the score closer at 3-1. The Rush again looked to kill the clock and keep possession, exhibiting smart plays and brilliant defense as they ran off another ten minutes before Jacksonville hit again, this time on a rebound off a distance shot to make it 3-2. Jacksonville seemed to get their energy back, could the Rush hold them off?

One goal by the Rush could’ve driven a stake into the hearts of their opponents, and it seemed as if the Rush were determined to get that goal. A Cortez pass up to DeLaCruz led to a hard shot that was saved by the Jacksonville goalie, and another spot on pass from Leary to Garcia likewise led to a shot that was gobbled up by the goalie.

Jacksonville seemed put back on their heels by the aggressiveness of the Rush, but with just a few minutes remaining, they sent all their players up to press for that final tying goal. Moving the ball around smartly with their defense around the midway point, they probed and pulled out the Rush defense to try to find spots to attack, but the Rush held strong, swarming to any oncoming threat and clearing the ball out. A long clear by DeLaCruz killed off almost 20 seconds and brilliant screening off three throw ins between Dzudu and Leary knocked off a few more minutes as Jacksonville could only attempt to steal the ball through Leary’s screen off, eventually only able to kick it away out of bounds.

With just seconds remaining, Jacksonville made a last gasp attempt, with three quick passes leading to what looked like an open shot, but Cortez jumped in front of it, blocking it with his body. Another shot! Blocked by Dzudu! The ball rolled dangerously around the box, as players from both sides desperately lunged for it. But it was quick Adam Jack who got to it first, the Rush defensive stalwart smartly clearing the ball away down the field. Jacksonville pursued, but it was too late. The whistle blew, with the final score 3-2, and the Rush celebrating a tough, gritty, and very much hard-earned championship trophy against some of the best competition in Illinois at the U12 level.

After two incredible comeback victories, down three goals three times, and an amazing win against vaunted competition in the final, the underdog Rush were exhausted and elated, rushing the field in celebration, an ebullient wave of smiles, hugs and high-fives.

Medals around their necks, trophy in hand, the team were all smiles as they circled together, a band of brothers, at the end, having gone through battle together and emerged victorious as they let loose a final cry of “Rush!”

And now, at 11-0-1, undefeated, and having gained wins against four top-ten ranked teams in their last five games, they await their next ranking, which undoubtedly will be a well-earned number one.

Sean Leary is an author, director, artist, musician, producer and entrepreneur who has been writing professionally since debuting at age 11 in the pages of the Comics Buyers Guide. An honors graduate of the University of Southern California masters program, he has written over 50 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.