WILIAMSTOWN, MA – At halftime during a first-round NCAA tourney game, Williams College men's soccer coach Mike Russo gathered his team on Cole Field to talk second-half strategy.
Russo came to the end of his remarks regarding tactics, encouraging his team to focus and to start the second half with energy. Russo then scanned his team to make sure they had received the message.
Russo was not surprised to see a hand in the air, that is, until he realized it was the hand of Zac Daniels, the 11-year old boy from Williamstown his team had "drafted" in October through Team IMPACT.
"Zac is there something you want to say?" Russo asked. "My coach always says to defend first and then attack," said Zac.
Before Russo could respond applause and shouts of 'Let's go Williams!" burst forth from his team.
"It brought tears to my eyes," commented Russo who is in his 34th year at Williams.
Thomas College tied the first round match in the 54th minute, but the Ephs answered the Thomas goal just five and half minutes later when Mohammed Rashid fed Patrick Ebobisse in front of the net. Williams prevailed 2-1 to move on to the NCAA Second Round.
Russo's booters were the first Eph team to draft a player from Team IMPACT. Team IMPACT is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of children with life-threatening diseases by matching them with college athletics teams, providing an extended support network from which both the children and the teams gain inspiration and perspective.
|Zac with jubilant Ephs who advanced past Amherst in
PK shootout into National Semifinals in San Antonio
Zac was born with a rare life threatening birth defect that has left him with multiple chronic health conditions and years of specialists, tests, procedures, and medications as a way of life.
"Zac has been one of the highlights of our season," said Eph senior captain Matt Ratajczak. "I honestly feel like we are able to draw strength from one another because of his presence in our team huddles, meetings, and practices. He is way tougher than any guy on our team and we all know it."
Upon learning of Ratajczak's comments Zac said, "I'm not tough. I feel important and special when the guys do things with me. Just the little things like when they show me how to do something. And that means a lot to me. Just being with them makes a difference for me."
Mike Russo is taking his fifth Eph team to the National Semifinals and he will tell you that this year's team is not the most talented he has coached that has advanced this far, but it is team that has over-achieved more than any he has coached.
"When we met Zac his mother explained what he has gone through and what he has to do continue to endure to live a quasi-normal life," said Russo. "Zac has been inspirational to our players."
The day after the dramatic penalty kick shootout win over archrival Amherst College in the Sectional Finals that sent the Ephs to San Antonio Zac assumed that he would be going to San Antonio.
Williams softball coach, Kris Herman, who is a founder and board member of Team IMPACT relates, "Melanie [Zac's mom] knew she was in trouble when she realized Zac didn't know he WASN'T automatically going to Texas."
"Why mom, I'm ON the team," said Zac.
Herman happily reports that, "people connected with the college, Williamstown residents, and parents on three different Williams teams contacted Team IMPACT unsolicited, to financially support Zac and Melanie making the trip to San Antonio." While much of the cost of sending Zac and Melanie to San Antonio has been raised, Team IMPACT, in the person of Kris Herman -- Softball Coach, Williams College, Atletic Department, 22 Spring Street, Williamstown, MA 01267, is still accepting tax deductible donations made payable to Team IMPACT.
"We see Zac as one of guys on the team, coach Russo sees it that way, and most importantly, Zac sees it that way," senior captain Peter Christman stated. "We as a team fully expected that Zac would come with us to the Final Four in San Antonio. Of course, making it happen behind the scenes was a process that involved a great deal of hard work and generosity. I don't know exactly whom to thank but I know that as a team we are excited to have Zac come with us. Zac has been an extraordinarily influential presence all year and he has helped us get this far. I couldn't imagine not having him with us in Texas."
"I think what makes our relationship with Zac so special is that both the team and Zac get so much out of so little," continued Christman. "Welcoming Zac onto the team honestly felt very natural. He instantly became part of our soccer family. His toughness, resilience, and positivity have worn off on every single one of us in an incalculably significant way. We derive strength from him and he derives strength from us, yet it takes so little to make that happen, and that's what makes our relationship so special."
"Team IMPACT is an amazing program that has made a really big impact on Zac's life in such a short amount of time," said Zac's mom Melanie. "I'll forever be grateful. As a parent, you do anything you can to help your child... You feel helpless. Then, when someone else steps in and more importantly, is willing to help, and is able to impact your child in a positive way, well, not only does it improve the life of your child but it leaves you, the parent, just completely humbled and grateful beyond words."
Team IMPACT has matched up children with more than three quarters of the colleges in New England and continues to expand with 15 children now placed in the Mid-Atlantic region.
See story of Zac's draft day HERE.