The kick by Matt Lehman sliced toward the left corner of the Gator net, curving through traffic … ticking off the post … and in.
And just like that, with 4:37 remaining in overtime, Lehman’s team-leading 13th goal of the year sent defending District 9 Class A soccer champ Northern Potter to a hard-fought 5-4 quarterfinal win over Port Allegany. After knocking off the fourth-seeded Gators (12-7) on their home turf, the No. 5 Panthers (11-7-1) advance to face either top seed Karns City or No. 9 Redbank Valley in next Tuesday’s semifinal round.
But with five minutes left in regulation, despite controlling the ball for most of the game, outshooting Port 25-18, and dominating corners by a 15-2 margin, it looked like NoPo might not even make it to overtime when Sam Kysor’s direct kick gave the Gators a late 4-3 lead. The Panthers kept the pressure on, though, and Lehman headed home Matt Morgan’s corner with just 2:07 left to set up the heartstopping – and in Port’s case, heartbreaking – finish.
“We just had to do the little things right,” Northern Potter coach Mike Morgan said. “For us to come back … I think in the whole season we had two comeback wins, with this being the third one. So that’s kind of huge for us, especially in the playoffs. In the regular season, it’s a little different to come back when you’ve got some league opponents that you see a couple of times. But to say that you’ve got to score – and score again – just to have your season go on, that’s special.”
Ross Nelson and Dylan Walaski combined for nine saves in the NoPo net, while Ben Edgell stopped 12 shots for the Gators.
“We can’t be surprised they won, considering how little we were able to control the ball,” a disappointed Port coach Aaron Clark admitted. “If you can’t hold the ball, you can’t win. I was amazed that we were winning at one point and we probably had possession for a third of the game; Northern Potter just controlled the ball so well. It’s a testament to our forwards and our attacking pressure that we can be in our defensive zone for so long, and quickly strike for goals.”
That pressure allowed the Gators to tie the game midway through the second half, when Kysor took off on a run up the left side of the field and sent a perfect cross over to Big 30 scoring leader Scott Brookens, who calmly settled the ball and buried it for his 26th goal of the season and second of the game.
“Tremendous individual play,” Clark said. “To be honest, we weren’t able to put anything together with the exception of little runs, short bursts. Those short bursts turned out to be really dangerous; if we would have been able to keep the ball for a few minutes here and there …”
Goals by Walaski and Matt Morgan gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead midway through the first half, before Brookens’ first score put the Gators on the board with 15:55 remaining. Charles Plank’s 12th of the season restored NoPo’s two-goal cushion a few minutes later, but with just 0:38 left before halftime, the Gators pulled back within 3-2 when Derek Johnson drilled home a direct kick off a Panther handball.
“Their set pieces killed us,” Morgan said. “That’s a credit to them. You need to take advantage of what the other team gives you, and they definitely did.”
But in the end, it was Northern Potter who made one final play when they needed to. So while the Panthers move on, Clark and his players are left to reflect on their season.
“This was hands down our most successful season ever, as far as individual play, team play … I’ve had some of the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” he said. “The players had a lot to do with making it fun – characters like Scott and Sam and Tyler Kittilson, Elliot Binder, and I could go on and on and on – they’re just good people. They care a lot.”
As for Morgan and his squad?
“We’re just thankful for another day,” he said. “Another game.”