Back in August, Jefferson City soccer coach Scott Blake wasn't sure the Jays would play even one game this season due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Happily, he was wrong. The Jays got in 28.
"We've all been playing on house money, we never knew what was going to happen, so every game was like a gift," Blake said Saturday after Jefferson City dropped a 2-0 decision to the St. Dominic Crusaders in the Class 4 semifinals at Eddie Horn Field.
The Jays had a special reason to want to get in a full season.
The roster featured an unusually high total of 17 seniors that had played together since their days in youth leagues and had finished one game short of the Final Four last season.
"Every senior group is special and important to the program," Blake said. "But with this big group, they all know each other, they know each other's families. We value team relationships, we've worked on them.
"But because we invested in it and the players invested in it, the expectations were there this season and we stuck together."
Blake had served as a coach as the group was coming up through the developmental programs.
"It makes it special that I was a youth coach with these guys, there's a special connection with them," he said.
One of those seniors is Blake's son, Ethan.
"It was special to get the opportunity to coach him," Blake said.
The team also felt a connection to the Lady Jays soccer team and the other Jefferson City sports that had their seasons canceled to end the 2019-20 school year.
"We felt for the girls soccer team and the other sports that didn't get to play last spring," Blake said. "I sure hope things work out so they can all get their seasons next spring."
Jefferson City entered Saturday's game No. 3 in the Missouri High School Coaches Association's power rankings, two spots behind St. Dominic.
The Crusaders scored a goal late in each half Saturday to advance to this Saturday's state championship game in Springfield.
"It hurts," Blake said. "It just didn't happen for us. But the boys played hard, I am super proud of them."
As the season went on, interest grew in the community around the Jays soccer program. Jefferson City drew big crowds as it hosted the district tournament and the sectional round, then saw the largest group of fans for Saturday's semifinal.
"This state run brought a lot of our old players and fans back to the park," Blake said. "That's a big positive."
Jefferson City ended the season with program records for wins (25), goals scored (108) and shutouts (19).
"We are deserving of being in the conversation of being in the title game, we just didn't get there," Blake said. "But we belonged here."
St. Dominic (23-1) will face Jackson (18-3) for the title. Jefferson City defeated Jackson 4-1 in a regular-season contest Oct. 24.
Jefferson City will share third place with Park Hill, who lost to Jackson in Saturday's semifinals.
It's the best state tournament finish in program history.
"Obviously, we wanted to be playing for a state title," Blake said. "But this was a great season for us.
"It's been special, I appreciate everybody buying in and good things came from that."