Almost everything about the Grace Cup was a challenge this year. But at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, two teams took the field and played for the love of the game of soccer and in support of a little girl who made more out of nine years on this Earth than most people do in a lifetime.
When I started the Grace Cup in 2015, I pictured it as something similar to the basketball all-star games that the Carlinville Rotary Club organizes. I figured I’d just put the word out and all of the kids who played soccer would flock to this new venture for one last chance to play with their friends and teammates.
Reality struck early. We barely had enough players the first year, and when we tried to add a girls’ game in 2018, the struggle continued. But in 2019, we had 48 players for the two games and it felt like we really hit our stride.
Then COVID hit and we had to cancel the 2020 game. We hoped to get the game going again in 2021, but there was still a little uncertainty. Any hopes of doing one last year were blitzed on May 19, when Grace passed away.
The thought of doing anything, let alone a celebration of some kind, felt impossible, and continued to feel so well into the next school year.
After talking to my beautiful wife Mary, Joe Webb and Travis Matthews, who make up the core of the non-existent Grace Cup committee, I decided to continue the game as a tribute to Grace and to encourage players to make the most out of the time they have.
I assumed that we would pick up where we left off in 2019, and again, reality struck hard. Emails went out to coaches, but player commitments were slow in coming in. With three weeks until game time, I was leaning toward cancelling the entire event.
I reached out multiple times on social media and received support from old friends and new, who encouraged players to take time out of their busy schedules to play one last time for Grace.
Ultimately, we had to cancel the girls’ game, but we gave the few who signed up the opportunity to play in the boys’ game. Two players, Melissa Rufus of Hillsboro and Grace Conner of Rochester, took us up on the offer and that meant the world to us, mainly because we needed every last person.
We started the game with 23 players (22 is the minimum) and had to switch Lincolnwood senior Levi Weir from one team to another to make the game possible. With only one substitute between the two teams, everyone played a lot, a tall task even with shortened 30-minute halves.
But rather than complain about the things that didn’t work out, all I heard about were the things that did. If the players disliked anything about the game, they were polite enough not to say anything. Same with their parents, who made over $300 in donations to the INADCure Foundation.
The overall play was extremely good, with Greenville’s Dima Powell scoring the black team’s goal in a 3-1 loss to the red team, who were led by Sacred Heart-Griffin’s Josh Klenke, who scored twice and assisted on Duncan Scheidenhelm’s goal in the first half. Klenke and Powell earned Grace soccer scarves as the MVPs of the game, but the honor could have went to anyone.
As good as the play was, it was the more lighthearted moments that I’ll remember most. The second half turned into a contest between North Mac’s Austin Dohleman and Rochester’s Adam Anderson on who could score first, after both spent the first half in their natural goalkeeper positions. Anderson tried to pull off an overhead kick in the box and hit the post once as well, while Dohleman was agonizingly close on a number of occasions.
We also had the first yellow card issued at a Grace Cup, to Litchfield’s Spencer Hoehl. The recent Litchfield grad was sprinting toward the sideline in pursuit of a loose ball, when he accidentally knocked down one of our ball boys, Lucas Stewart from Impact FC. The young player played up the incidental contact, flopping his legs over his head and hamming it up for fans along the sideline.
Brock Eddings, who officiated the game, seized the opportunity to show a laughing and very apologetic Hoehl a yellow card as he helped Stewart to his feet. It was the best part of a really good day.
The hardest part came after the final horn sounded, when I thanked the players and handed out the MVP awards. I had kept myself busy throughout the day in an effort to not think about the one person missing from the festivities, the one person who I went to all of this effort for.
But as I thanked them, there was no way around it. Grace wasn’t there. And she won’t be for the Grace Cups in the future either.
That breaks my heart. It makes me question whether the Grace Cup, or anything at times, is worth doing.
But it is worth doing. It’s worth every second of worrying that things aren’t going to go well. It’s worth every second of worrying that no one will show up. It’s worth every ounce of effort that it took to make the game happen, which could not have been done without the support of some very good friends who I will not name in fear of leaving one out.
It’s worth doing because for nine beautiful and awful years, Grace didn’t quit. She didn’t quit and neither can I.
2022 Grace Cup
Red Team 1 2 - 3
Black Team 0 1 - 1
Scoring: Red - Josh Klenke 2, Duncan Scheidenhelm 1; Black - Dima Powell 1.
Red Team: Levi Weir (Lincolnwood), Caleb Stevens (Lutheran/New Berlin), Reece Butcher (Lutheran/New Berlin), Bryce Suckow (Altamont), Noah Klimpel (Altamont), Grace Conner (Rochester), Brayton Strawkas (Riverton/Tri-City), Duncan Scheidenhelm (Lutheran/New Berlin), Adam Anderson (Rochester), Carson Franks (Glenwood; MVP: Josh Klenke (Sacred Heart-Griffin). Coach: Travis Matthews (Impact FC).
Black Team: Melissa Rufus (Hillsboro), Cameron Crow (Litchfield), Spencer Hoehl (Litchfield), Conner Stalets (Pana), Ethan Lentz (Hillsboro), Josh Bauman (Hillsboro), Joe Mattson (Hillsboro), Devin Speiser (Hillsboro), Matthew Page (Hillsboro), Lukas Moore (Greenville), Austin Dohleman (North Mac); MVP: Dima Powell (Greenville). Coaches: Matt Lentz (Hillsboro), Dave Mattson (Hillsboro).