By Jonathan Deal
For 236 minutes, East Limestone could find no answer for Athens organized defense. Athens had shutout its rival in two regular season games this season and was four minutes away from another 1-0 victory.
Somehow, the Indians put two quick goals past Athens in the final four minutes of Saturday’s second-round playoff game to send it into overtime. Two overtime periods and 10 spot kicks later, Athens emerged with a 3-2 victory. With the win, Athens advanced to play Briarwood in the 5A semifinals Friday at John Hunt Park in Huntsville.
“You can’t get complacent on a team like East,” Athens senior Wynn Baker said. “Just like they showed, they can put two in the back of our net in no time. We tried to just keep fighting and hold them off until the final whistle, because that’s all that matters.”
Baker opened the scoring for Athens in the first half with a calm left-footed finish in the 31st minute. Athens defense remained a rock throughout the second half, thwarting one East Limestone attack after another.
As the clock ticked closer to zero, East sent more players forward and the pressure finally paid off when Mitchell Mathis got East on the board with just over four minutes to play. After Dilan Sayer’s shot was blocked, the ball fell to Mathis, who made no mistake from close range.
The goal sent East Limestone and its raucous crowd into a frenzy.
A frenzy that was short-lived.
Two minutes later, with Athens in full assault, East Limestone goalie Wesley Swaim made what appeared to be a point-blank save but, deflecting off his hand, the ball spun parallel to the goal line. It was all Athens’ Chris Gregory needed to take advantage and tap it in the open net and regain the lead.
Just when Athens thought it had secured the win, East earned a penalty kick 30 seconds later, which Dilan Sayer coolly converted with a low shot right down the middle of the goal to force a tie and overtime.
“I’ve played in a thousand soccer games, I’ve coached hundreds and I’ve never been in a game as good from first whistle to last whistle as this game,” East Limestone coach Danny McConnell said. “Every trap, every touch was important. I’m extremely proud of how they handled themselves.”
An on edge first-half led to an even more tense overtime period that nearly saw East take the lead when Sayer broke through the AHS defense. One-on-one with Athens goalie Dean Bunnel, Sayer was denied twice by the Golden Eagle goalkeeper.
“I was watching Dilan and the ball,” said Bunnell. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against, so when he gets the ball, you have to be ready for anything. I kind of knew which way he was going. My team helped me and cleared the ball quickly.”
After two scoreless overtime periods, the teams went to kicks from the spot. Following consecutive misses from East Limestone, the final kick fell to Athens’ Jose Soto who placed the ball into the upper right corner for the winning goal.
“I knew it was all on me,” said Soto. “It always works in practice. I tried to put it in the upper-90, so he wouldn’t get it.”
Athens advanced to play Briarwood in the semifinals at 3:45 p.m. Friday from John Hunt Park in Huntsville.
“It’s an honor to represent this section because our section is just lights out tough,” said Athens coach Ron Oakley. “It was with a lot of grit and a lot of heart. They play together well as a unit.”
It will be Athens’ first state tournament appearance since 2004 and fourth overall since Oakley’s team made the Final 4 three out of his first four seasons.