Section 11 at Atwood Stadium during the 2019 League Two Final, home to the River Rats. Photo by Cameron Koubek
FLINT, Mich. - The summer of 2020 at Atwood Stadium looks quite a bit different than the summer of 2019 - for obvious reasons. With the cancelation of the League Two season this year, there haven’t been crowds of thousands packing in to watch the Flint City Bucks defend the crown they won last season. But the break has left plenty of time for nostalgia.
August 3 marks one year to the day since the Bucks defeated Reading United AC to win the club’s record fourth League Two title, courtesy of an Ayuk Tambe penalty kick in extra time. Though the Bucks had previously won three titles, last year’s meant even more being the club’s first season in Flint.
For a city that has so often been portrayed negatively in news coverage and pop culture, the Bucks’ victory was a real positive for Flint residents to rally around. The 7,198 people who attended the League Two Final at Atwood (a record-high) and celebrated wildly on the field afterward were testament to that.
The River Rats, the Bucks’ supporters group, had been backing the team to the hilt before that magical night at Atwood.
“I was actually reviewing some photos on my phone from last season and there was a picture, one of my favorites, of about 10 of us waiting out an hour-and-a-half rain delay during the [Michigan] Milk Cup,” said River Rats founder Michael Allard. “We were the only ones at Atwood, but there were probably three cars waiting in the lot. About 30 minutes into the weather delay a man emerged from his car and gave us all ponchos. That man, Doug, was quickly adopted into the group.
The 2019 League Two Final saw a record attendance of 7,198. Photo by Cameron Koubek
“I think that's what made last year so special - everything just arose organically. We pieced together a passionate group of supporters as the team pieced together wins. That initial season is riddled with majestic moments. For me, the title was just the cherry on top.”
The Bucks’ home support was remarkable through the 2019 League Two campaign, and the group of players made it a special season as well. They quickly formed close bonds not only with the community, but with each other, which helped the team win gritty contests time and again - particularly in games in which many argued they were outmatched talent-wise.
What makes that camaraderie even more impressive is the fact that the Bucks used over 40 players during the course of the season.
“The makeup of the team that played in the playoffs made the year so special,” said Flint City Bucks Owner Dan Duggan. “Only four of the same players who started the first game of the season started in the final. We had around 20 players leave due to injury or college obligations. Several of the players who made a huge impact on the championship run played less than a month for the club, but rose to the occasion to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The 2019 Flint City Bucks had remarkable team chemistry on and off the pitch. Photo by Cameron Koubek
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has put plans to honor the 2019 squad with a banner unveiling and ring ceremony on hold. Some of the Bucks players from last year have moved on to the professional ranks, most notably Patrick Nielsen (now with Atlanta United 2) and captain Charlie Booth (now with FC Tucson). There is an undeniable, and understandable, sense of disappointment that the Bucks won’t have the chance to defend their title this season.
“It will lose a bit of its charm and we will lose even more players who were planning on being part of this year’s bid for a repeat,” said Duggan. “We would have much rather defended our title on the field this year to keep the crown for 2020 than under the current circumstances.”
But if there’s one word that perhaps best describes Flint, it’s resilience. For a city that has faced and dealt with more than its fair share of challenges in recent years, the pandemic is yet another unwelcome hardship. It’s definitely one that the Bucks, their supporters and the rest of the city can get through together.
“First, I would like to recognize the tireless efforts from our supporters who have been on the frontlines,” said Allard. “Although our activities have been attenuated due to the pandemic, our supporters continue to carry the torch for the Flint area. Fellow Section 11 regular Charlie Burt opened Flint City Hard Cider across the road from [River Rats supporters’ bar] Soggy Bottom. Additionally, one of our founding members Josh Blair also opened a new spot - Barley and Vine - in the midst of the pandemic. I have a lot of respect for these guys and our other Flint business owners to persist through this unfortunate time.
“Just as we got through that Milk Cup storm delay, we'll get through this together. In time, there will be golden skies again over Section 11.”