Bill Elliott's Saturday began in Pensacola instructing a mandatory soccer camp at the University of West Florida, where he coaches in the fall.
It ended in Chattanooga celebrating with the rest of the Chattanooga Football Club as they inched one step closer to their first-ever National Premier Soccer League title with a 4-1 victory over Sacramento Gold FC. He was late to the club's semifinal match due to some flight complications and had to receive updates via text on his phone, but there was no preparing him for the sight of seeing nearly 9,000 fans at Finley Stadium when he got there.
Elliott flew to Chattanooga in a two-seat Cessna airplane. He was flying over the Scenic City as the Gold held a 1-0 advantage, but by the time he arrived at the match, CFC was ahead 2-1 and slowly taking control of the match.
"There's one day a year that we're obligated to be on campus, and that day was today," Elliott said Saturday night. "We have a camp where we ID players for our program for the future, so I went down Thursday, spent all day Friday getting organized and coached the camp [Saturday] morning.
"Thank goodness Chattanooga thinks I'm worth it; they got me here, and hopefully I contributed something in the second half to help us take the next step."
He credited the rest of the Chattanooga FC coaching staff - which consisted of assistants Jimmy Weekley and Jordan Mattheiss, and general manager Sean McDaniel - for keeping things in order until he got to the stadium.
"What's great about Bill is that he puts trust in his players and coaches," midfielder Michael Brooks said. "Jimmy runs practice sometimes, and it's for opportunities like this. The players don't bat an eye when Jimmy's coaching because Bill sets it up so everybody gets a chance, and there's no one person or coach that makes a difference. Everybody plays together as a team, and it's why we're here."
A crowd of 8,878 fans watched CFC's big win, which improved them to 3-0 all-time in NPSL national semifinal matches. The stadium started filling up early, and people were still coming into the stadium well after kickoff, as a line of people waiting for tickets had formed down Reggie White Boulevard. In comparison, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, who was ranked most of 2013 and uses Finley as their home field, had four games where their attendance was larger than the turnout Saturday.
Niall McCabe said the team walked out 40 minutes prior to kickoff, and was shocked to see fans already in the stands.
"It was incredible. When we saw there were that many people here to warm up, we knew it would be a special night," McCabe said. "You could see fans pulling in and coming to the game, and we just wanted to thank everybody for coming to watch us play and wanted to perform for them."
Elliott, a Hixson native, couldn't believe the atmosphere when he got to the match. He got emotional afterwards just talking about it.
"As I look up now, I just can't believe it," he said. "It was amazing to be in a stadium with almost 9,000 people; to see how far soccer's come almost makes me want to cry."
The players were equally emotional at the crowd, especially players such as Brooks and forward Chris Ochieng, who are four-year members of the club.
"I think when CFC was formed, the goal and the foundation was to get something like this," Brooks said. "We knew it wouldn't happen overnight, but this is what we came back for, and why we play - it's for this. You get tears in your eyes for looking up in the stands and seeing so many people. In the pregame, everybody has tears in their eyes to see this type of crowd, and you can't stop playing; you have to keep playing your hardest because you want to win for the crowd and play for each other.
"Four years ago, you never imagine this happening, but we've built for it."
Chattanooga FC (13-2-2) will face New York Red Bulls U-23 in this weekend's national final. The site and time haven't been determined, but there is a chance that the city could host again. NPSL commissioner Michael Hitchcock said during a halftime speech to the crowd that "everybody is noticing what is happening here," referring to the consistently growing fan base of the Chattanooga side, which could aid in helping the city land the final.
"We'll see who we get and where we get them, and try to adapt and overcome as we have done so far this year," Elliott said prior to New York's 2-0 victory over Lansing United in Sunday night's semifinal. "We've been this far before, but two years ago we were out in San Diego with about 20 Chattahooligans. We don't know where we'll end up, but we sure would like it to be in Chattanooga and we hope it works out, but if it doesn't, we're still excited to be back and this time we'll look to win and not just be happy to be there."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.