By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- This year's Northwestern District boys soccer race has been the closest in years, with the difference in the top four teams measured in the smallest of things.
Saturday's semifinal match between top-seeded Handley and fourth-seeded Millbrook was a perfect example of this.
In an intense, emotional contest, the two rivals battled through regulation play, two overtimes and all but the final seconds of two sudden death overtimes before the Judges were able to take advantage of a critical error on a corner kick to pull out a 2-1 victory.
With the final seconds ticking off the clock, and the game headed towards penalty kicks to decide the winner, Handley's Eduardo Santiago noticed that the Pioneers had failed to cover the near post on a corner kick. He signaled to his teammates his intention to launch his corner kick at the unguarded near post, and Deni Deyanov hammered it home for the game-winner.
"We give Eduardo the option to center it to the near or far post," Handley coach Cosmo Balio said. "He saw them over-committing to the far post and signaled that it was coming to the near post. Boy, did he hit a perfect ball."
"He signaled that it was coming to the near post and he really set it up well," Deyanov said. "I just saw the ball, and ran in and scored the goal."
With no Pioneer guarding the near post, Millbrook goalkeeper Trae Drexler had no chance to make the save.
"We've had issues with marking all season," Drexler said. "But we fought hard the entire game. We were the underdog, but we really stuck it to them. We took them to the final seconds of sudden death overtime, but unfortunately they came out on top."
The goal spoiled an otherwise brilliant performance by the Pioneers, and left them in an understandable state of depression.
"We worked hard, and we pushed them hard the entire game," Millbrook coach Keith Kilmer said. "I just feel terrible for the players. I feel bad for our seniors who worked so hard this season. I really don't have words to adequately express how I feel right now."
For the Judges, it was a wake-up call that didn't go unnoticed by the players.
"This was a real wake-up call for us," Deyanov said. "This was a very tough game, and both teams played with a lot of heart. We know now that we're going to have to give our absolute best in every game we play from now on."
From the beginning, the game was a battle for midfield, with neither side able to get control. Although the Judges outshot the Pioneers 19-9 during regulation play, both team's defenses allowed the other very few quality scoring opportunities.
"They were constantly trying to get the ball over the top on us," Handley fullback Andrew Marut said. "That's just not going to work against our defense. We play well together, and we had a strong game today."
With 20 minutes left in the first half, a free kick by David Ko from just outside the penalty area finally gave the Judges a 1-0 lead. But if Handley thought that getting the first goal of the game was going to demoralize Millbrook, it took just a couple of minutes into the second half put an end to that thought.
Although Judges goalkeeper Stefano Frantellizzi successfully deflected Millbrook forward Stuart Hupp's shot from 15 yards out just two minutes into the second half, Chris Barrette was there to knock the ricochet into the net to tie the score, 1-1.
"We were having to fight hard for everything we got," Balio said. "A miscommunication early in the second half really hurt us."
From that point until the final moments of the second sudden-death overtime, the game turned into an emotional, physical battle that saw both teams have opportunities go astray thanks to dramatic saves by the goalkeepers.
Shots from Handley's Levi Stein, Ko and Deyanov came within inches of giving the Judges the lead. Deyanov's free kick was the most dangerous. With 16:30 left in the game, the Handley sophomore bent the ball perfectly, only to watch helplessly as Drexler made a sensational save.
With six minutes to play, Millbrook had its chance on a free kick, but it sailed high.
Handley outshot the Pioneers 10-1 in the four overtime periods, but weren't able to get anything past Drexler until the final seconds. The Millbrook senior registered six saves for the game, all of them difficult.
Frantellizzi had three saves for the game.