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Back on the Pitch: Base Honor Guard ready to support another Portland Timbers title run

The Portland Timbers FC playing their season opening match, hosting the Columbus Crew SC at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., Mar. 6, 2016. Coincidently, the Timbers won the opening 2016 match the same way they won their first title match on Dec. 6, 2015, by beating the Crew with the same 2-1 score. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

The Portland Timbers FC playing their season opening match, hosting the Columbus Crew SC at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., Mar. 6, 2016. Coincidently, the Timbers won the opening 2016 match the same way they won their first title match on Dec. 6, 2015, by beating the Crew with the same 2-1 score. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Portland Timbers FC mascot, ‘Timber Joey” shows a slice from the log he cut to fans to celebrate the first goal scored by Portland Timber Diego Valeri, during the match between the Portland Timbers and the Columbus Crew SC, Providence Park, Portland, Ore., Mar. 6, 2016. Coincidently, the Timbers won the opening 2016 match the same way they won their first title match on Dec. 6, 2015, by beating the Crew with the same 2-1 score. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Portland Timbers FC mascot, ‘Timber Joey” shows a slice from the log he cut to fans to celebrate the first goal scored by Portland Timber Diego Valeri, during the match between the Portland Timbers and the Columbus Crew SC, Providence Park, Portland, Ore., Mar. 6, 2016. Coincidently, the Timbers won the opening 2016 match the same way they won their first title match on Dec. 6, 2015, by beating the Crew with the same 2-1 score. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team, from left to right, Staff Sgt. Joseph Regas, Staff Sgt. Bret Workman, Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, and Staff Sgt. Kalene Kaplan wait on the sidelines at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., to Present the Colors at the Portland Timbers soccer match against the Seattle Sounders, June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team, from left to right, Staff Sgt. Joseph Regas, Staff Sgt. Bret Workman, Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, and Staff Sgt. Kalene Kaplan wait on the sidelines at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., to Present the Colors at the Portland Timbers soccer match against the Seattle Sounders, June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team present the colors during the National Anthem sung by Madison Shanley, prior to the kickoff match between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounds, at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team present the colors during the National Anthem sung by Madison Shanley, prior to the kickoff match between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounds, at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team present the colors during the National Anthem sung by Madison Shanley, prior to the kickoff match between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounds, at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team present the colors during the National Anthem sung by Madison Shanley, prior to the kickoff match between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounds, at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team, from left to right, Staff Sgt. Joseph Regas, Staff Sgt. Bret Workman, Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, and Staff Sgt. Kalene Kaplan Present the Colors at the Portland Timbers soccer match against the Seattle Sounders held at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard team, from left to right, Staff Sgt. Joseph Regas, Staff Sgt. Bret Workman, Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, and Staff Sgt. Kalene Kaplan Present the Colors at the Portland Timbers soccer match against the Seattle Sounders held at Providence Park, Portland, Ore., June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Shelly Davison, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

PORTLAND, Ore. - -- It's more than an hour before kickoff, Mar. 6, and already the stadium is vibrating from 'The Timbers Army' pre-match rituals: A raucous enthralling mixture of singing, stomping and shouting from the north end stands of Providence Park.  Assembled inside locker room one, myself and three other team members of the Portland Air National Guard Base Honor Guard Team are getting outfitted, rehearsing rifle movements and roles for the Presentation of Colors to start the season opening match between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew soccer clubs. A routine, that prepares each of us to work in precision as one element during the national anthem.

Scanning the locker room, I watch others checking their mobile devices one last time to see if the thunderstorm will hold off for the start of the match; a literal "calm before the storm" moment that quickly passes. As we head out the door to take the Pitch, a last appraisal of each other's uniforms and final primping over even the smallest of details. It's game time.

After a miraculous finishing run to the end of the 2015 season, the Portland Timbers went all the way to claim their first ever Major League Soccer Cup title against the same Columbus Crew team, 2-1 on Dec. 6, 2015.  A magical season, yet it was the final three games of the regular season that set the tone for the Championship run.

By early October of 2015, the Timbers were on the brink of missing the post season.

"After the 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City at home (Oct. 3, 2015) we were not even in the playoff picture," said Kate Flowers. As the coordinator for Events and Promotions, for the Portland Timbers, Thorns and T2 teams, Flowers has to ensure every piece on the field prior to the match is in place. This includes the sponsorship information, large presentation banners, youth participation, booking singers for the national anthem and affiliates to present the flag.

As members of the Base Honor Guard, we had been busy supporting all three teams at different intervals all summer. Yet we started noticing a trend line; when we did a Timbers match, the team always produced points (3 points for a Win, 1 point for a tie) and had not lost a game we had participated in. The same could almost be said for Madison Shanley, a Portland State University student, who had been entrusted with singing the national anthem on multiple occasions.

"I started tallying up the games that I sung the national anthem at and in only had one game, they hadn't won," Shanley recalled. "Merritt Paulson (Timbers team owner) told me that I was the 'lucky charm' but I didn't want him to talk about it much because I was afraid it might jinx it." 

Closing the season with must win games, the Timbers made the playoffs but had to play a one game winner-take-all knockout match on Oct. 29.

Flowers wanted her good luck charms for the playoffs. With Shanley singing the anthem, the Portland Air National Guard Base team put their unbeaten streak on the line as well.

As the events and training manager for the Base Honor Guard Team, Tech. Sgt. Justin Meininger assembled a four member team to cover the match. "Whenever they ask for any games, I tell them we can do them all," he recalled. "I never have a problem finding volunteers for these matches!"

To advance, the Timbers would have to beat Sporting Kansas City, a team they had not scored a goal against in three previous matches during the regular season. As an Honor Guard unit, we had not done a Timbers match since Sept. 9, when the same two squads played to a scoreless slugfest. Something had to give.

It was a picture perfect night, the stadium was electric, but nobody was prepared for a match that ESPN columnist Jason Davis would later call, "an instant MLS classic."

Prior to the opening whistle, Victoria, an intern working with our Honor Guard Team, asked in advance that "if the team wins tonight are you available for the next match?" Echoing Meininger's advice, all four of us replied stimulatingly in the affirmative!

After 90 minutes of action the score was tied 1-1. After another 30 minutes of overtime play it was 2-2, leading to penalty kicks and the most incredible penalty kick shootout in league history. After 10 rounds, where each team sent a player forward to make a goal, it was still tied. This meant both teams goalkeepers had to take penalty kicks.  Timbers goalie Adam Kwarasey converted first, he then stopped Sportings keeper Jon Kempin's attempt and it was on to the next round!

Within minutes after the match concluded, I sent Meininger a text message: "Were on the hook for the next match on Sunday afternoon." He messaged back, "Cool, Whatever they want!"

Two days later on Nov. 1, with gear in hand, Staff Sgt. Kalene Kaplan along with Col. Jonathon Vinson and Tech. Sgt. Keven Baker, and me tried our luck again, this time as the Timbers took on Cascadia rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps. Though the teams played to a tie, the Timbers advanced to the Western Conference Final with a 2-0 win on the aggregate, Nov. 8, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

This meant one last time; our 'Honor Guard Quartet' would try finding some latent magic against FC Dallas on Nov. 22. When we saw Shanley on the sidelines waiting to sing the anthem, it felt like money in the bank!

When talking with Shanley later, she confided that she aspires to be a singer that has great range and can hit the really high notes. "I want to stay true to the (national anthem) song; I want to really carry 'The Land of the Free' refrain with as much passion and emotion as I can."

As we waited to take the pitch, Flowers joked with our squad, "With so many things going on, you guys are one less thing for me to not have to worry about."

Somehow our luck held through again! After a 3-1 win, the Timbers were on to Dallas for the second leg of the playoffs. A 2-2 final score on Nov. 29, again on the aggregate, put the Timbers in the MLS finals against the Columbus.

The Timbers remarkable late season run of nine unbeaten matches propelled them all the way to the title. It might have been just coincidence but the Base Honor Guard team finished the season with 8 wins, 6 ties and no losses at Providence Park in 2015. 

And picking up where they left off with a 2-1 win on the 2016 Opener, the streak goes on!

As members of the Air Force Honor Guard, our Creed reminds us that, "my standards of conduct and level of professionalism must be above reproach, for I represent all others in my service." During the Timbers battle for their first MLS Cup, it was particularly enthralling to represent our unit and branch of service to our region and community.

Reflecting on the title run, Flowers said so many people contributed to the success of last season.

"The Air National Guard was just as much a part of it all if not more, in the sense of what the Honor Guard does in representing the our nation," she said. "Having you guys here is a huge point of pride for all of us."