Sometimes, all the planning and preparation in the world can be trumped by a snap decision on a random night.
Such was the case Thursday for the Free State High boys soccer team during its 1-0 victory in its Class 6A regional championship game against Manhattan High at FSHS.
Late in the game, with the Firebirds and Indians tied at 0, Free State junior Diego Gonzalez grasped his one chance at a shining moment when the Firebirds were awarded a corner kick with just over 12 minutes to play.
The kick, which came from the left side of the goal, near the Free State bench, normally would have been taken by senior forward Daniel Chance. Instead, Gonzalez pleaded with Chance for one opportunity.
“Honestly, the other day when I was talking with my mom about another corner kick I had taken, she told me that she wanted to see me bend one into the net,” Gonzalez said. “So when I saw Daniel going to grab the ball, I was just like, ‘Daniel, just give me one shot.’”
That one shot soared seven feet off the ground toward the MHS net and bent around the goalkeeper and inside the back post. As soon as the ball crossed the goal line, Gonzalez was mobbed by his teammates and then raced toward midfield pointing at his mother in the stands.
From his position in front of the Firebirds’ dugout, Free State coach Jason Pendleton stood speechless.
“I don’t know that Diego’s taken a corner kick from that side all year,” Pendleton said. “Sometimes fate has a funny way of rewarding kids. He hit an absolutely perfect ball, and it went into the goal. It was an awesome shot. The chances of making that shot at this level are pretty slim.”
The goal came with 12:05 to play, but, instead of sitting back and waiting for the time to tick away, the Firebirds continued to attack. Senior Tyler Smith nearly added a second goal with a header at the 31-minute mark, and Free State’s continued pressure through the midfield made it extremely difficult for Manhattan to mount an attack.
Although Gonzalez’s goal was the game-winner, the unit that yet again won this game for the Firebirds was the defense. Just like it did on Monday in a 4-0, Round-One victory against Junction City, the Free State D stood tall, funneled the Manhattan attacks to the sidelines and kept most of the dangerous balls out of the box.
“They’ve been outstanding all year for us,” Pendleton said of his defense, which delivered the team’s 11th shutout of the season.
Added senior goalie Jackson McClure, who played both halves Thursday instead of alternating with Elliott Johnson like he had done throughout the season: “It’s not just me, not at all. It’s the defense in front of me and this entire team. We’ve all worked so hard and wanted this so badly. We needed this tonight. And we got it.”
For the 11 seniors on this Free State team, Thursday’s victory was long overdue. The Class of 2010 never had advanced to the quarterfinals until Thursday night, losing in the regional final in each of the past three years.
For the program as a whole, Thursday’s victory was even bigger. It marked the boys soccer team’s third regional title in the school’s 13-year history. The other two titles came in 2001 and 2005. Unlike the others, however, this one came following the team’s school-record 14th victory of the season.
“That’s huge,” Pendleton said. “This is not the most talented team we’ve had at Free State. The most talented group we had didn’t even make it out of the first round. This group has some talented players, but this is the best team we’ve had as far as guys working hard and pulling through for each other.
“These kids have worked so hard, and this has been a goal of this senior class for a long time,” he continued. “So we knew going into tonight that, win or lose, it was going to be an awesome season for us. This kind of puts some whipped cream on top of the ice cream, and now we’ll see if we can add a cherry and maybe a few nuts.”
Next up, Free State (14-4) will play Tuesday in a state tournament quarterfinal game against an opponent and at a location that will determined sometime today. Although they’ve gotten to this point twice before, the Firebirds have never advanced past the round of eight.
“Anything’s possible now,” Gonzalez said. “We can play with anybody, and we’ve got nothing to lose.”