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Cathy's boy

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The Bearcats soccer team will play Friday in the Big East Final Four for the first time in school history. The journey to this spotlight has been extra special for the goalkeeper who helped deliver them there.

 

CINCINNATI - Cathy Williams wasn't just a soccer mom. She was the ultimate soccer mom.

 

Cathy and her son, current Cincinnati senior goalkeeper Matt Williams, were surrounded by the game. A 5-year-old Matt could be seen on the sidelines of Deering High School in their hometown of Portland, Maine, as the ball boy running after every errant pass. It was only the beginning.

 

Matt loved playing soccer and Cathy loved watching him.

 

Whether practice or game, tournament or scrimmage, from youth league to high school, Cathy and her son was there.

 

She never missed a game.

 

If the young team needed a coach, she helped coach. If work got in the way, she restructured her schedule. If another engagement popped up, it took a back seat.  

 

She never missed a game.

 

"Matt is her pride and joy," said Richard Libby, Matt's father.

 

Her pride swelled along with Matt's ability. He eventually became the leading goal scorer and goaltender for Cheverus High. Before long, Cathy would be joined on the sidelines by Division I college coaches. 

 

Only, once Matt settled on living his dream of playing Division I soccer at Cincinnati, Cathy couldn't be at every game. Her absence had little to do with distance from Maine to Ohio.

 

In fall of 2005, Cathy Williams was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors gave her less than two years to live.

 

The conversation arose about Matt returning home during the process instead of staying at Cincinnati. The family decided Matt should stay with the Bearcats. In a time where tough decisions were the norm for the Williams', this one wasn't.

 

"My mom was always about me doing what I wanted to do regardless of how she felt," Matt said. "She said, 'Make your decision as if I was healthy.'"

 

So, Matt did. Within two years he assumed the starting job in goal for the Bearcats. He's started all 50 games he played in spanning the past three seasons.

 

Cathy made it to three. Matt remembers each one with meticulous detail. He calls it his "Mighty Ducks" moment. Emilio Estevez's character in the hockey trilogy said when his dad was at games, he wanted to score 100 goals.

 

"I felt the same way," he said. "When she came, I really wanted to play incredible."

 

She witnessed the first time he ever played a college game - in mop up duty against Seton Hall.

 

"I got in for like six minutes," he said. "But it didn't' matter because she was there."

 

A year later, with Matt in his first year as starter, Cathy's cancer was progressing to the point air travel was not an option. But when the Bearcats traveled to the northeast to play Providence and UConn, no illness would keep Cathy from seeing her boy.   

 

She hopped in a car and made the three-hour drive down.

 

"I don't know how she did it," Matt said.

 

She saw her son pitch a shutout in what ended as a 0-0 tie against Providence where UC hit the post in overtime.

 

Then, she witnessed the Bearcats holding a 1-0 lead against powerful UConn with only six minutes remaining. Only, the Huskies put together a late charge to not just tie the game on Matt, but end up sticking him with the loss on a second goal.

 

"I was a nightmare," Matt said, recalling how devastated he was personally.

 

It was the last game Cathy would see her son play.

 

"We lost to Georgetown in early November," Matt said, "then I got a call from my step dad who said he thought it was time for you to come home; your mother is not doing so well. I was home for a month and she ended up passing away.

 

"It was tough. It was definitely an emotional time."

 

MOVING ON

 

Matt returned to Cincinnati the next season to resume his soccer career. Even though Cathy was no longer with him, he knew playing on would be her wish. More specifically, not quitting would be the ultimate tribute.

 

"That's one of the things that really stuck with me was her battle with it," Matt said. "That's what makes me want to keep playing and makes me want to do what I do because this woman never gave up even when her chances were slim."

 

Matt has done more than just keep playing, he's elevated his game to a higher level.

 

This season, he posted the best goals against average for a single season in Cincinnati history at 0.61. That number ranks 11th in the nation. His 20 career shutouts are good for second on UC's all-time list.

 

On Thursday, he was named third team All-Big East Conference goalkeeper.

 

Ever humble, Matt's quick to distribute credit to the back line of freshman Alex Hadley, senior Chris Mitchell, sophomore Roger Thompson and junior Sam Klosterman.

 

But few can deny Williams presence in the net put UC in position to make a run at a Big East tournament title.

 

"He's been doing it all year for us," coach Hylton Dayes said. "He comes up big for us."

 

Dayes and Bearcats program did their best to return the favor.

 

On Senior Night at Gettler Stadium against Syracuse, all senior's mothers and fathers would walk out on the field with them. Matt made a special request for a moment of silence to be made for Cathy.

Matt's support structure spans deep into a family tree he says represents "more than just a last name." Father, cousins, sisters, step parents and step brothers formed a cavalry of family supporting Matt just as they did through the difficult time two years prior.

 

As they stood out on the field where Matt lived out the dream he and his mother discussed on so many trips to tournaments and dinners after games, the moment of silence struck the entire family simultaneously.

 

"I don't think there was a dry eye out there as far as our family goes," Libby said. "I think there was nine of us on the field and every one of us had tears in our eyes. It was pretty emotional."

 

Little did they know the emotional ride was only beginning.

 

'SHE'S ALWAYS THERE WITH HIM'

 

Despite Matt's strong season and the stingy play of a defense ranked among the best in the country, they finished the season 7-4-7 overall and 5-1-3 in the Big East. Entering the Big East tournament as the No. 2 seed in the Red Division, they would need a stronger resume to make the NCAA tournament.

 

Monday's arrival of UConn, ranked ninth in the country, represented a chance. It was a chance to keep alive hope of the NCAAs and a chance to reach the semifinals of the Big East tournament for the first time in school history.

 

After an early Bearcats score, UConn would eventually tie the game. A scoreless overtime sent the match into penalty kicks. 

 

For Matt, the situation held extra significance. Not only could this be the final college soccer game he plays, but here it was against the same UConn program that sent him to a devastating loss in the final game Cathy saw him play two years prior.

 

Libby, standing on the sidelines, noted the silence falling over the stadium at every UConn penalty kick. Matt didn't notice any of it. All he saw was the opponent and the ball.

 

"I was just zoned in," he said.

 

The first kick Matt stopped was nothing but a guess. He got lucky and picked the correct direction.

 

Stopping one penalty kick was difficult and might have been enough to earn UC the win.

 

When Matt used a combination of research and gut instinct to pick off a second, his performance changed from special to legendary.

 

"Something about it told me to dive left," Matt said. "Maybe it was mom telling me, I don't know."

 

He called it the biggest moment of his soccer career. Hard to argue.

 

With UC only needing one goal to earn the win, Thompson buried the ball in the net to set off a wild celebration of teammates jumping and sprinting down the field.

 

Matt didn't follow them. He couldn't.

 

He dropped to his knees with only one thought on his mind.

 

"All I could think about was her," Matt said of his mother. "It was an incredible feeling. She was there."

 

For Matt, this feeling represented so much more than earning a game Friday against Providence in New York City on national television. It represented more than an historic win for a Bearcats program he's dedicated five years of his life to. It represented more than one of the great personal victories of his career.

 

"To me it was like a culmination," Matt said. "It was five years coming that we were able to do this. One of the things my dad kept saying was your mother would have been so proud of you. She's so proud of you right now. That hit me really hard."

 

In the biggest moment of Matt's career, there was no doubt in his mind she played a role.

 

"No matter what, she's always there with him," Libby said. "That's how we all feel."

 

Indeed, she never missed a game.  

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