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Spring Fling

Championship Soccer: GCA wins first title in Anderson's return to the field

The Lions take down Gatlinburg-Pittman 4-1 to win championship

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Championship Soccer – Grace Christian Academy vs. Gatlinburg-Pittman, Class A Final

Carson Anderson hosts the Class A Soccer Championship trophy after Grace Christian Academy clinched the school's first title on Friday, May 25, 2019 in Murfreesboro. Just nine months ago, Anderson was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma. He returned Friday to play for more than 20 minutes and help his team win a championship. 

See IMAGES for full photo gallery from the championship match. 

MURFREESBORO – Carson Anderson will be the first one to tell you that Friday wasn’t about him. Everyone else involved with the Grace Christian Academy family will tell you otherwise.

Team Carson officially took over the Richard Siegel Soccer Complex and a motivated group of boys powered past defending Class A champion Gatlinburg-Pittman 4-1 to cruise to the young school’s first state championship.

Anderson was truly at the center of it.

“This game was for Carson,” GCA freshman Shewit Worton said.

Less than a week removed from a five-day chemotherapy treatment, Anderson took the field for the first time since March on Friday.

When the public address announcer said his name and the young sophomore jogged onto the field in the 18th minute, the GCA Lion faithful roared and he received a standing ovation. It’s been nine months since Anderson was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma. Nine months since he revealed to his teammates and coaches that he was going to beat it and play again. Nine months since an entire team, school and community rallied around one of its own.  

“I mean, that’s a fighter right there,” an emotional GCA coach David DeFatta said. “Just being able to watch him fight for the last nine months and fight for his life. It has been so impactful for these guys. To watch him lean into his teammates and lean into his faith to beat this has just been an amazing thing to watch.”

Anderson has endured an aggressive treatment plan, especially early on after it was found that the cancer diagnosis in his left foot had spread into his lungs. His spirit never wavered, though. Even as he adjusted to a new normal and had surgery to remove one of his toes, he tried to play the game he loved. It was a short-lived return to the field as he suffered an ankle injury in one of GCA’s first matches. His timeline for return indicated it would be at least mid-May, meaning his team would have to reach the state tournament to give him the chance of a return this season.

The Lions responded and scored 49 goals in six matches to qualify for the state stage for the second time in as many years.

Freshman Malachi Jones said the whole season has been built around getting Anderson back on the field.

“It was a huge shock to find out he had cancer, but when we found out he could play with us again, we knew we just had to get here so he could play again,” said Jones, who followed up Sam Barrionuevo’s early goal with a tally in the 17th shortly before Anderson took the field.

“We weren’t playing for ourselves,” Jones said. “We were playing for something bigger and I’ll always remember the excitement on everyone’s face, especially on Carson’s face. Seeing what he’s been through and to see that big smile and tears of joy, it brought tears into all of our hearts. We knew God had carried us here.”

Anderson played for more than 20 minutes in two stints – one in the first half and one in the second half. His team set the tone in the 5th minute when Barrionuevo buried a goal off a ball from Levi Jones. Malachi, Levi’s brother, followed with his tally with the assist going to Alex Johnson in the 17th. Shortly after Anderson took the field, Barrionuevo struck again when he dribbled through defenders, found a seam and launched a right-footed rocket to the upper left corner of the goal. That made it 3-0 GCA.

“I’m ecstatic for my team,” Anderson said. “And it feels wonderful to be back out there. I still have a ways to go personally, to get myself back in shape fitness-wise, but that’s what the summer is here for.

“I’m already looking forward to next season, I guess … I’m just so happy. I’m living in this moment right now.”

Anderson re-entered the match in the 68th after Worton scored on another ball from Johnson for the 4-0 advantage. Gatlinburg-Pittman responded with a tally in the 70th on an unassisted goal from Luis Ortiz, but the Lions pressured again. They produced three shots over the final minutes, including one on goal from Anderson in the 74th that drifted just wide of the left post.

“I was so nervous,” Anderson said. “I was like, ‘How am I going to do? Am I going to mess up and cause an own goal?’ But (my teammates) played wonderful and they did everything they could to help me out and make it easier on me, which is more than I could ever ask for and more than I deserve.”

As the final seconds ticked away to mark the school’s first championship, students leaped the fence to celebrate with the team, surrounding Anderson on the field.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to cry,” he said from the middle of the celebration. “You boys. You boys all deserve this.”

GCA reached the state tournament for the first time last season led by a trio of eighth graders in the Jones brothers and Barrionuevo. A year older and the youngsters guided the Lions to the state championship. GCA boasts just seven upperclassmen and has only three seniors graduating. 

“I’m excited to grow with these guys,” said DeFatta, who co-founded the GCA soccer program with his wife nine years ago. “They've grown me as a coach. This past six months has probably been one of the biggest growths I’ve had in my life professionally, spiritually just from learning from them and listening to them and watching them.

"They're an inspiration to me and to my family and this program has had a huge impact on the DeFatta family.”

The Lions will transition into Division II-A next season and join a league featuring state runners-up Christ Presbyterian Academy from this season and Battle Ground Academy in 2018. BGA fell in the state semifinals this week, while the region's other top team Franklin Road Academy lost in the quarterfinals in three overtimes against eventual state champion Evangelical Christian School. 

Anchored by the return of so much talent for several years, GCA could get right back in the mix. 

“We have a really young team and everyone says that in the future we’re going to be really good, but I think that we’re good right now," Worton said. "I can’t wait for next year. ... Our team is amazing. It's just amazing to be a part of." 

The team made sure it was Anderson who was the first to host the championship trophy. His continued fight includes radiation treatment in two weeks.

“They keep saying they did it for me and they played for me, but it’s so much bigger than that,” Anderson said. “It's so much bigger than just for me. … We went all the way. We went to the final dance and we won it and it just feels great.

“God is good and we give all glory to him for everything.”

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