With the playoff seed assured, the Kickers close out the regular season against Greenville on Saturday

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Owayne Gordon scored in the 35th minute at Forward Madison on Saturday, to help Richmond earn a victory that gave the franchise its first regular season title since 2013.



The moment, frozen in time, could tell a story on its own.

When the final whistle sounded at Forward Madison last Saturday, cementing a 1-0 victory for the Richmond Kickers, Darren Sawatzky raised both fists in the air from the sideline as some of his players s hugged to celebrate.

The win secured the USL League One regular season title for the Kickers, their first such title since 2013.

Sawatzky, Richmond’s third-year head coach and athletic director, has expressed his ambition for trophies since day one. And last Saturday’s result put the club in the best possible position to win the trophy they were chasing.

It felt good, Sawatzky said – a feeling clear to any observer in the aftermath of last Saturday’s game.

“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to do in any league,” Sawatzky said Thursday of the regular-season crown. “And in our league, it’s crazy. At some point you’re in first place, you can be in last place the next week.

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“I mean, it’s such a tight table. And winning a regular season championship before the last game of the season is really huge. So, for us, it’s a lot of work to get to this point.

Now, ahead of entering the playoffs, the Kickers are set to close out the regular season with what has the potential to be a preview of the League One championship game. Richmond (14-7-8) hosts Greenville Triumph SC (12-8-9) at City Stadium on Saturday, for a fight at 6:30 p.m.

According to Sawatzky, this is a great setup for the playoffs.

“You can’t back down to a playoff opportunity,” Sawatzky said. “You have to go there banging on all cylinders.”

This year yielded the best season of what has been a product under constant construction under Sawatzky’s leadership.

The Kickers narrowly missed out on a Ligue 1 playoff spot at the end of the truncated 2020 season, which featured just one league title game instead of multiple rounds of the playoffs. Last year, Richmond qualified for the league’s six-team playoff champ, the No. 5 seed. It was the club’s first playoff appearance since 2016, but the Kickers fell against FC Tucson in their first game.

But the Kickers enter the playoffs this year in the midst of their most productive form all season. Richmond is undefeated in its last eight games, dating back to August. It’s a stretch from which the team collected 16 points – buoyancy for the club’s place at the top of the table.

This point came through what has been a three-year process of building a culture, shaping the roster and establishing a program.

“It’s great to see this work paying off,” said striker Jonathan Bolanos, who earlier this week was named League One’s Player of the Month for September.

Richmond’s last regular season title nine years ago came as a member of the former USL PRO league.

Veteran goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, who has been with the club since 2019 and is also a goalkeeping coach, said the victory on Saturday was very emotional for him. Not only because of what it took to get here, but also because he lost his father, Robert, earlier this year. His father was his biggest supporter, he said.

“Something we’ve worked really hard for, not just this season but for years,” said Fitzgerald, who can reach the milestone of 100 USL League One appearances on Saturday.

Saturday’s opponent has been tough for the Kickers to beat this year. Greenville is the only opponent this season that Richmond has lost to twice, 3-1 at home in July and 1-0 on the road in August.

Greenville goaltender Paul Christensen leads the league with 10 clean sheets. Sawatzky said the pressing defense Triumph displayed in the August game, despite the loss, actually helped the Kickers reduce their schedule as they worked on the ability to break such tactics.

“It couldn’t be better for us to play against a team that got two Ws against us,” Fitzgerald said. “Because, for us, that’s a huge motivator.”

After Saturday, as the top-two seed, Richmond will get a bye to the playoff semifinals, when it hosts a game on Oct. 29. The Kickers are also in line to host the Ligue 1 title game if they advance.

For Sawatzky, not only does it take hard work to win a regular season title, but the stars also have to align.

They did, and Sawatzky and Co. hope they stay that way for at least a few more weeks as a trip to the playoffs awaits them.

“Culture has won a championship,” Sawatzky said. “And we will work to try to do it again here in a few games.”

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