Fort Mill kept its nerve to hit nine straight penalty kicks before keeper Mike Usina saved Northwestern's final spot kick to give the Yellow Jackets the Region 3-AAAA boys' soccer championship in a breath-taker Friday night.
One after the other, Northwestern (14-2-2) and Fort Mill (20-3-1) players coolly stepped up and stroked their penalties into various corners of the goal. With the score tied 8-8 and Usina having denied Dylan Davis’ attempt, Luca Botzenhardt struck his shot to the left corner. Trojan keeper Cody Jones got a palm to the ball, but couldn't keep it out of the net, setting off wild celebrations by the swarming Jackets.
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“We were running out of guys,” said Fort Mill coach Lloyd Chalker. “You could see we were having to talk a couple into it.”
Northwestern bested Fort Mill 2-1 in the two sides' first meeting this season, but South Pointe's win over Northwestern left the Trojans and Yellow Jackets tied at the top of the Region 3-AAAA heap. Winner took all Friday night, and for the first time outright, it was Fort Mill taking the happy photos afterward. Steely nerves at the penalty spot ensured the Yellow Jackets got the result.
“You can work on it in practice, but it’s so hard to create the level of intensity, the nerves in practice,” said Chalker.
Northwestern will settle for second place in the region after just its second loss of the season. For the Trojans, it was a dispiriting result to a game that was equally battled over.
“I’m just really proud of my guys tonight,” said Northwestern coach Dom Wren. “When you look at the chances we created, we’ve had a clear penalty turned down in the first 20 seconds of the game, and a little bit of a lapse defensively. We knew if we kept a clean sheet, we’d be in the game and I think ultimately that was a little switch-off defensively that cost us the game.”
The two sides were square, 2-2, at the break, and neither could break the deadlock in the second half. Beach music wafted up the hill from the nearby Strawberry Festival, offering an odd contrast as crunching collisions flew in all over the turf pitch during a game between two teams ranked in the top-five in the state. Both sides were going for it.
Neither found the back of the net in two five-minute overtimes full of desperation, and the match proceeded into penalties. Northwestern hit its first five spot kicks into the same left corner past Usina. Fort Mill relied a little more on fortune, Jonathan Cutrone’s shot flying in off the crossbar and Mason Strohl’s just sneaking past Jones. But when Davis shot straight at Usina, the game was there for Botzenhardt to win.
“That was a tough game,” said Chalker. “That’s what it’s all about when we play these guys, and we know it before we get here.”
The officials knew what kind of game they were in for when Northwestern's Julian Welborn went down in the box in the first 20 seconds. The center official waved away the Trojans' protests and play moved on.
Fort Mill opened the scoring barely two minutes into the contest, Austin Cassidy capitalizing on an early Trojan mis-kick to walk in on goal and flick left-footed past Jones.
Northwestern equalized with 16 minutes elapsed. Bailey Woolley powered by a chasing defender and dinked a ball into the box. Welborn snapped his head like a SeaWorld dolphin, finding the opposite corner to tie the game 1-1.
The Trojans then took the lead on an even better goal, lifted straight off the locker room dry erase board. Four Trojans huddled around a free kick 30 yards distant. Woolley ran over the ball first, then Erwin Salazar, who continued his run and received the ball on the left side of the 18-yard box from a teammate. Salazar played a first-time ball into the path of Woolley, who had continued his run straight into the box, and the onrushing midfielder nicked the ball past a defender before lashing past Usina for a 2-1 lead.
Cutrone equalized for the hosts in the last minute of the first half after he was tripped in the 18-yard box. He calmly tucked his penalty into the corner opposite of Jones’ guessing dive. It was to prove good practice for the fun to come.