By Brad Fauber
SALEM -- As Stonewall Jackson prepared for a penalty kick shootout after battling Radford to a 2-2 tie through four overtime periods during Saturday's Group A state semifinal match at Salem High School, Generals coach Caleb Golladay shared a quick conversation with junior goalkeeper Ryan Zerkel.
"I told him it's all come down to this. It's come down to where it's on everybody's shoulders. I said but mainly this is where you've got to come up big," Golladay said. "I said this is what you do, you're a goalie for this reason. This is where you need to shine. And he looked at me and said 'I got this.'
After both teams tied 3-3 through the first five penalty kicks, the game entered a sudden death period with a berth in the Group A state championship match on the line. Radford matched Stonewall point for point in the first two sudden death penalty kicks, and Generals junior Roberto Cardoso Jr. kept the pressure on the Bobcats by sending his next shot into the back of the net.
Needing to match Cardoso's goal, Radford senior Juan Perez stepped into the box and fired a low shot towards the left side of the goal. Zerkel acted on instincts, diving to his right and just getting his fingertips on the ball. Zerkel's effort did just enough to change the ball's trajectory, as the shot clanged off the post and out of harm's way, sending Stonewall to it's second-ever appearance in the state title match by way of a 6-5 advantage in penalty kicks.
"He looked right there before he went to kick, and he followed through. I watched it, it hit my fingers and hit the post. It was one of the greatest feelings," Zerkel said. "It feels good that the hard work paid off. It was one of the greatest feelings in the world."
Stonewall (24-0) will move on to face George Mason in the championship match, which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. today at Radford University. The Generals beat George Mason in the Region B title game, 3-1, in their first meeting this season.
Knowing little about the Bobcats (20-1) heading into Saturday's match, the Generals came out with a plan to stay one step ahead of Radford and jump out to a lead as early as possible, hoping to use their experience in close matches this postseason to their advantage.
Stonewall was able to do that, scoring the game's first goal 13 minutes into the match and never trailing in the contest.
"That was our biggest goal, to not go behind in a game like this ... we knew that Radford, where they're coming from, probably hadn't had too many close games or went to overtime or penalties," Golladay said. "We've been there, we knew the pressure, so being able to put Radford down one goal and putting them back on their heels was a big advantage for us."
That initial blow was delivered by Stonewall senior Juan Luna, as he received a nice cross into the center of the penalty box from teammate David Dodson before firing a shot. Luna's attempt was deflected by a Radford defender, but Luna regained the ball and ripped off a second shot, this time finding the back of the net to give Stonewall a 1-0 lead.
"[Dodson] was to the right and I just called for the ball and he centered it," Luna said. "I ripped it and it ricocheted off one of their guys and I got it back ... and that's it. I just toed it."
Stonewall was able to effectively limit the Bobcats' offensive opportunities in the first half, as Radford recorded just one shot on goal in the first 40 minutes. But Radford made the most of that lone opportunity, as Bobcats junior Conner Williams scored off a corner kick from Juan Perez to even the score at 1-1 in the 30th minute.
Sticking to it's game plan, Stonewall answered quickly with a goal by Cardoso off a Luna assist to reclaim the lead for the Generals with 3:48 left in the first half.
The roles seemed to reverse in the second half, however, as Radford outshot the Generals eight to five and again tied the game in the 58th minute, this time on a goal by senior Henry Gichana off a breakaway that proved to be the last goal of the contest before the penalty kick shootout.
"We play a lot more bench people -- I think [the Generals] just got tired and we played a lot of people," Radford coach Greg Wade said. "We were hoping we would get a game-winner before PK's, but we practice PK's too and we felt strong on that going in."
Stonewall last advanced to the state championship match in 2006 where it lost to Clarke County, 2-1. The Generals will face another Bull Run District foe in George Mason today, and they are confident they will walk away with the state championship trophy the second time around.
"It's just incredible what we've accomplished here, and we're not done," Luna said. "We've still got tomorrow and we're going to win."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com