Over the past nine years, there have been a handful of players who have reached iconic status with the Kansas City Comets.
Those include a league MVP like Byron Alvarez; Major Indoor Soccer League championship series MVP Brian Harris, who led the Comets to their lone league title; acrobatic fan favorite Danny Waltman, one of the most honored goalies in the history of the former league; and all-time scoring leader Leo Gibson, who continues to star in the Major Arena Soccer League for the playoff-bound Comets.
But none of these players have a back story quite like goalie Mark Saxby, who will be in the net at 7:35 tonight when the Comets host the top-seeded Milwaukee Wave in the opening round of the 2019 Ron Newman Cup Playoffs.
“God bless Mark Saxby,” Comets coach Kim Roentved said following a brisk and brief Wednesday morning practice session at the Kansas City SoccerDome. “He is a young man with talent – but to go along with that talent is a work ethic unlike any I have seen.
“He works so hard. And had it not been for that work ethic, who knows what might have happened? We gave him a chance, and he took it. Now he is one of the best goalies in the league and Thursday he is starting his first playoff game, and I don’t know if I have ever seen anyone quite as excited as Mark.”
Saxby earned the starting job with an 8-4 record, a .610 save percentage and 6.98 goals against average after taking over for Brett Petricek in mid-season.
“He deserves to be in the net for our team,” Roentved said. “Early on, after five or so games (before Saxby replaced Petricek, who is no longer with the team), our left hand didn’t know what our right hand was doing. We were not playing like a team, and now, we are playing like a team. And Mark has been outstanding in the goal and his enthusiasm is infectious. When you’re around Mark, you get excited about hockey, about life, about everything. We are playing our best soccer right now and I can’t wait for Thursday night.”
Neither can Saxby, a 2008 graduate of Olathe (Kan.) East High School who was a part of a state championship team as a sophomore forward, and who won two all-state honors as a goalkeeper as a junior and senior.
“This is a long time coming,” said Saxby, who always spends time following a team workout to put in his own personal time honing his skills. “As a team and me personally, we’re comfortable and confident. We’re really playing well now and we’re excited about the first playoff game.”
Saxby is 30, and he has a modified 9-to-5 job as a full-time server at the Olive Garden in Olathe. Even though he is serving customers on a nightly basis, and making sure that they are aware of Comets soccer, his passion for his team burns bright.
“I have a business administration degree from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and people want to know why I’m a server at Olive Garden,” he said, flashing a smile and chuckling. “It’s because I’ve been chasing my dream of playing for soccer, and I finally caught it!
“The people at Olive Garden are great to work with. They pretty much let me set my hours and I get a lot of time off during the playoffs because they know how important the games are to me and our team.”
He has also had the support of his parents, who he says are his biggest fans.
“My parents have always been there for me, and while I serve at Olive Garden, I get to do a little marketing on the side,” he added with a wink. “I tell every table I serve that I play for the Comets, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I remember the Comets from the ‘80s, they’re back?’ And I let them know about the team and so many of them have come to our games – and that’s pretty cool.”
No one appreciates that gesture more than Jeff Husted, the Comets director of marketing and communications, who also does public relations work for the MASL league office.
“Mark is a dream come true – for Coach and for me,” Husted said. “I love the guy. Everyone loves Mark and I think that’s because he loves this team so much. And, he’s going to give you 110 percent, on the field and in the community, where he loves to talk about our team.”
Roentved said that before the regular-season finale – a 9-5 loss last Sunday in Milwaukee where he rested many of his players and had Saxby in goal for just the first quarter – he caught a glimpse of his goalkeeper’s work ethic.
“They had a workout room, and I went down about 9 a.m. and we played at 2 p.m. and I had told Mark that he would just be playing one quarter, and there he is with his elastic bands and balls, and all his workout equipment working as hard as anyone I have ever seen,” the coach said. “That’s why he is a part of this team. That’s why he is so important to our organization and that is why we love him as much as he loves everyone associated with the Comets.”
For nearly two years, Saxby knocked on Roentved’s door asking for a chance. He would come to practices and games and not receive a penny, but he wasn’t about to give up on his dream.
“I like Kim so much because he is an old school player,” Saxby said, “and people tell me I have an old soul – so I think this was just meant to be.”
And who knows, one day he might join the elite ranks of Alvarez, Harris, Waltman and Gibson, but right now, all Saxby is thinking about is tonight’s playoff game.
One dream has come true, and even bigger dreams are within reach on the horizon.