UPPER MERION — Ben Wainfan looked like he was waiting for the cut man to return to his boxing corner, his swollen eye acquiring a lovely shade of eggplant. Stefan Melekos required a double-wrapping of Revolutionary War-style head bandages.
Nkosi Graham had his wrist taped on the fly. And Nate Perrins finished the game looking like an endorsement model for KT sports tape.
It was that kind of night at Upper Merion High School for the District 1 Class 3A boys soccer final between Strath Haven and Holy Ghost Prep. So it’s only fitting that on a night of full-blooded challenges and unrestrained physicality, the difference was a moment of passivity by the Firebirds’ goalkeeper and the ruthlessness of Perrins to capitalize.
Perrins chased down a long ball that goalie TJ Butler was hoping to shepherd into the area and collect at the top of the 18-yard-box, tipped it away from him and buried into the net in overtime, sending Strath Haven to a 3-2 win.
“I saw the goalie kind of turn around and have his back to me,” Perrins said. “And I saw the ball, and I knew he wasn’t going to get there in time. So I knew I had the chance and I poked it through and I put it away.”
Trophy time for the Panthers. pic.twitter.com/wERlFLpyzn
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) November 2, 2018
The goal was Perrins’ second of the night, joining a Gavin Birch volley and negating a pair of goals from Graham. The win not only hands top-seeded Holy Ghost Prep (19-1-1) its first loss of the season, but it earns the Panthers (13-6-2) their first district title since 2004. Both teams advance to the PIAA tournament.
Wainfan and Melekos provided the most apt portrait of the game 10 minutes into the second half. They collided on a 50/50 aerial ball, with both players the worse for wear – Wainfan keeping his bleeding under the skin, while Melekos’ gushed. Both benches alleged high elbows, and words were exchanged on the sidelines.
But the play on the field itself was hard-nosed and clean, crunching tackles all around that stalemated a midfield battle and allowed the attacking talents to shine.
Each team was gifted a tally via errant goal kicks. Graham was the beneficiary in the 15th minute, a Noah Atsaves kick landing right at his feet. One of the best attackers in Southeastern Pennsylvania doesn’t need that much assistance, and Graham easily sliced home the goal past a scrambling Atsaves. It equalized a Perrins penalty kick in the 10th minute, won on a handball by defender Zach Moore that elicited precious little protest.
Birch’s goal in the 45th was created when he intercepted a Butler goal kick, though the speedy forward still had plenty of work to do, his volley from 30 yards perfectly placed to beat the keeper and restore a Haven lead.
“That was a rip,” Perrins said. “I don’t think he could do that again. Just kidding, but it’s a great hit, and he’s a great player. And I expect that from him.”
But then there was Graham again. The backline of Vincey Palermo, Harris Hardy, Simon Bolinger and Wainfan (and Perrins, in his stead for 10 minutes post-collision) mostly bottled up Graham and Melekos. But the former is too much of a talent to completely contain. So it was in the 61st that a misjudged long ball from Moore was allowed to bounce, and that was the only opening Graham needed to latch on and power home his 36th goal of the season.
“He’s a great player,” Wainfan said. “I’ve been playing soccer since I was a little kid, and he’s one of the best if not the best I’ve played against. So all you can do is put two people behind him; we had a strategy to stick there, and just hope he doesn’t burn all of you.”
Nate Perrins no doubter! 1-0 Haven. 10th minute. pic.twitter.com/DOBjLAtdri
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) November 1, 2018
Atsaves made five saves, including a big intervention in the first half where he charged out to get his body in front of a Graham shot. Regulation ended on an acrimonious note, with Holy Ghost allowed by the ref not to retreat the required 10 yards on a dangerous Haven free kick, effectively running out the clock while Haven protested.
It was just another emotional swing in a game full of them.
“It’s a game of ups and downs, and obviously we went through a lot of those today,” Perrins said. “One thing you can do is keep your head high, and that’s what we did today.”
Perrins did that 4:18 into the extra session. Like any of a countless number of speculative balls played toward the dangerous forwards on either side, Perrins didn’t give an inch. And that extra effort turned out to make a championship-level difference.
“He’s been doing that stuff all year,” Wainfan said. “He’s a total stud. It’s still pretty surreal, just sitting back and watching him take it, it’s amazing.”