TAMPA – If there is an art to saving penalty kicks, Lees-McRae goalkeeper Sean Paradise appears to have mastered it.
Paradise saved a spot kick in regulation, and then in the opening round of a penalty shootout, as the Bobcats first rallied from a two-goal deficit with 10 minutes to play in regulation and then won a shootout 5-3 against Lewis College to advance to the NCAA Division II Men’s championship after the two sides had played to a 2-2 tie after regulation and overtime at Pepin-Rood Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
“Whenever a striker approaches the ball, I kind of watch his hips, and see if he’s going to open or close them,” Paradise said. “If he opens, he’s going to open me up, and if he closes them he’s going to come across me, depending on whether he’s right- or left-footed. I just watch the hips, and I managed to get lucky a couple of times today.”
After Lees-McRae had held the better of play for most of the first half and early in the second, Lewis got the opportunity to take the lead when Lees-McRae’s Luke Staats was penalized for a handball in the penalty area. Robert McGowan stepped up for the Flyers, but his low shot to the right was turned away for a corner by Paradise.
McGowan had another chance to score from the spot when he took the Flyers first shot in the shootout, but Paradise again read him correctly, diving to his right to push his shot away, giving the Bobcats an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I figured he wouldn’t go the same way twice on me,” Paradise said. “He ended up going the other way, and I ended up guessing right again.”
All five Bobcats – Richard Guffens, David Palmer, Lee Squires, Berin Boracic and Jamie Bladen – converted their shots, putting Lees-McRae into Saturday’s championship game against No.1 Fort Lewis.
The drama of the shootout was almost matched by the drama of the final 15 minutes of the game, as Lewis appeared to have the game put away after a pair of goals by Nestor Hernandez gave the Flyers a 2-0 lead with 10 minutes to go. Hernandez opened the scoring in the 79th minute, controlling a long clearance by goalkeeper Sebastian Kieruzal in the penalty area before beating his defender and driving a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner of the net.
He then doubled the Flyers lead 57 second later, first releasing teammate Charlie Bucio on a run into the left channel before peeling off into the penalty area. Bucio cut back from the byline onto his right foot, and sent a return pass to Hernandez, who shot low first-time into the net.
Lees-McRae wouldn’t go down without a fight, though, and got a glimmer of hope with five minutes to go when Bladen released Grant Elder on the right of the penalty area, and Elder shot into the bottom left corner of the net.
The Bobcats then tied the game in the 87th minute when, after sustained pressure, Bladen picked up the ball in midfield, weaved past a defender and shot from 25 yards. The shot was blocked by the Lewis defense, but the ball caromed out to Squires on the right of the penalty area, and after taking a touch to control and move into the penalty area, he shot home to tie the game.
“I think especially after we got the second goal, we got a little too confident, possibly,” Hernandez said. “We lost the rhythm of our game, we were doing great, like coach said, for 83, 84 minutes, and they popped one in right after that, and then they got the second one. We didn’t do the job for 90 minutes.”
Lees-McRae coach Chris Whalley said while he wasn’t happy with his team’s performance, a sentiment echoed by his players, he thought the determination his side had shown was indicative of the spirit within the squad.
“I didn’t think we played very well today, but we’re very excited to be going to the national championship game,” Whalley said. “Hopefully we can play a little bit better on Saturday and hopefully get another result like this, but all-in-all, even though our play wasn’t very good, I think you’ve seen a little bit about what our character is like. We’re 2-0 down with six minutes to go, and we’ve come back and won the game, so for that I’m very, very proud of the boys.”