Fearless goalie saves Rhinos championship

In the world of sports, there is one position that might be the loneliest to play. It is also the most challenging, rewarding and, many times, heartbreaking of jobs. To be a goalkeeper in soccer takes nerves of steel, self-confidence and a certain mindset that enables one to conquer self-doubt. 

Such is Garen Harper of the Malibu AYSO Boys U-10 Rhinos team. Harper, nine, played goalie for his team this past season. Youth AYSO rules state that a player must only play a specific position for two of the four quarters in a game. On a typical Saturday in the fall, Harper would play the first and fourth quarters because of his ability to start and finish games strong. 

“I like to protect the goal,” Harper said. “It really concerns me when they score. When somebody scores, I’m not happy.” 

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Harper used that attitude of determination to come through for his team on the big stage recently. After completing a 10-game regular season, the Rhinos were seeded fourth in a 10-team postseason elimination tournament held at Malibu High School. 

The first opponent was the Foxes, a team the Rhinos tied during the season, 3-3. Behind the stellar play of Harper, the Rhinos shut out the Foxes, 3-0. Next on the docket was the undefeated Stingers, who had beaten the Rhinos earlier in the season, 4-2. 

Harper and company knocked out the No. 1 seeded Stingers, 3-1, and advanced to the championship game to face the No. 2 seed, the Killer Croques. 

Could the Rhinos defeat the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds to win it all? If so, Harper had to step up and have another strong outing. The Killer Croques had defeated the Rhinos, 4-1, a few weeks prior in the regular season. “Against all odds,” Rhinos Coach John Franco said. 

Things looked bleak at halftime as the Killer Croques headed into the break with a 2-0 lead. But Harper delivered an enthusiastic halftime speech, and the Rhinos responded with two goals to tie the game by the end of regulation. After two 10-minute periods of overtime, the game remained tied at two apiece. The championship came down to best-of-five penalty kicks. 

Ten yards separated Harper and the opposing Killer Croque players as they went head-to-head in the shootout. “Garen always comes up big for us in goal,” Franco said. “That’s why he finishes games.” 

And did he ever. With the excitement at a fever pitch, it was time to see which goalie would prevail in the toughest of situations. 

The Rhinos scored on their first attempt. A subsequent shot by the Killer Croques went wide right as the ball whizzed by Harper. 

A second goal was scored by the Rhinos as they took a quick 2-0 lead in the shootout. Down two goals, another Killer Croque shot was thwarted as Harper dove to his left and made the save. 

With the crowd cheering loudly for both teams, the Rhinos converted again on their third shot to make it 3-0. As a result, the Killer Croques had to score on each of their final three shots to have a chance at survival. They never got that far. 

“He enticed the other player to shoot a certain way,” Franco said. “He got dirty in the mud and saved it.” 

Harper again made another diving save to stop the Killer Croques. Game over. The Rhinos won the championship in a shootout, 3-0. 

“I was kind of nervous. But I was happy at the end because I blocked the shots,” said Harper, a third-grader at Webster Elementary. “My coach picked me up and everyone came over and hugged me.” 

“He was the hero of the game. I wanted him to be recognized,” Franco said. “He’s been a great kid all year long.” 

Brahm Harper, Garen’s father, watched as his son was carried off the field by Franco. “It’s every parents dream to see your child come through with that pressure. He was up for it,” Brahm explained. “It was just fantastic. I’m very proud of him as his father.” 

Harper celebrated his accomplishment at home with his parents enjoying a well-earned pizza. 

The Rhinos advanced to the area playoffs where they ultimately were eliminated. Regardless, it was a season to remember for Franco and his 10 players. 

“This was the best squad I ever have had. Every kid played his heart out,” said Franco, who coached his sixth season for Malibu AYSO. “It was a great season.” 

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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