EAST GOSHEN — The bicycle kick was remarkable even if the ball didn’t quite land on goal. Just hanging in the air to make solid contact was amazing considering the persistent rain at West Chester East High Tuesday.
Then there was the heel kick that missed the mark, although by no more than a foot, which would have given Strath Haven the early lead in its PIAA Class 3A state playoff opener against Mechanicsburg.
But those chances began to haunt Nate Perrins and the Panthers as their rushes up the field proved fruitless.
The Panthers didn’t score in the first half while the Wildcats did, Justin Flemming tallying on a less than aesthetically pleasing toe shot with 8:34 to go in the first half. And it was still a one-goal deficit 74 minutes into the one-and-done match scheduled for 80.
Perrins didn’t want to call it a career remembering the ones he didn’t net as much as the eight goals he did in the playoffs entering this game, including the overtime winner against Holy Ghost in the District 1 championship.
“Obviously, it’s going through my head,” Perrins said. “But I felt like I’d get more opportunities, and I did. You’ve always got to keep your head high. You can’t put yourself down because if you put yourself down, you’re not going to score.”
On this strange, surreal day featuring a couple of massive rainbows burning through the rain and bracketing the East football field like McDonald’s arches, there would be no regrets for the Panthers or their captain.
Just when it seemed the Wildcats would bring more honor to a league boasting of defendings Class 4A state soccer champion Lower Dauphin, Perrins collected the ball and rocketed a turnaround volley into the near corner from about 18 yards out to knot the game at 1 with 5:45 left in regulation.
That sent the Panthers (14-6-2) and their fans into a noisy celebration, and their coach, Ryan O’Neill, into silent prayer.
“The fear was that we’ve been scoring goals, we’ve been scoring a lot of them and feeling very dangerous,” O’Neill said. “So, there was a little bit of feeling like a jinx that we wouldn’t get one.”
The Panthers made more noise down the homestretch but couldn’t score and that led to overtime. Under PIAA rules there are two five-minute, sudden-win periods followed by penalty shots, if necessary.
In the first three minutes of extra time it looked like Nicholas Palermo won the game for the Panthers. But the closest official was shielded by a mass of bodies and didn’t signal a goal. For a while that was beginning to look like another of those unfortunate plays you might remember, rather than the fortunate ones.
Perrins wasted no time turning that bad thought away as he hammered home another turnaround side volley nearly identical to the first goal to give the Panthers a 2-1 decision. The next challenge for Strath Haven is Athens, which defeated Crestwood, 3-1, Tuesday.
“We were just happy we won,” goalkeeper Noah Atsaves said. “If we had lost it might have been a different conversation with that other stuff but we won. I’ve got so much trust in my team, so much trust in Nate and the people playing offense that I knew we were going to pull one out. I knew when we went into overtime that we were winning that game just because of the high intensity we were playing with. So many chances are going to lead to a goal, and that’s what happened.”
Perrins praised the Wildcats and District 3, calling the opponent “very good.
“Obviously there’s a lot of great teams in that district and Mechanicsburg is one of them,” Perrins said. “We saw it when we came out. They moved the ball very well. They’re very physical. And I think they knocked off the No. 1 seed in their district. They played like a top seed.”
O’Neill suspects the Panthers may have come out a little flat because of their emotional win over Holy Ghost Prep. He loved the rally in the second half. And he laughed when it was suggested the program’s first win in the states in double-digit years was, well, kind of exciting.
“Kind of exciting,” O’Neill said. “I just told the players all of our old coaches are going to have a heart attack out here. I’m super proud.”
With 10 goals in four playoff games, Perrins is becoming a legend. Certainly to Matt O’Neill, the coach’s kid who told Perrins, “You must have magic cleats.”
Atsaves, who walked off the field with Perrins, offered another perspective.
“Nate is just a fun guy and he’s very intense on the soccer field and off,” Atsaves said. “He’s a true captain, that’s how I’d put it. He’s a leader. That’s just the best word to describe Nate – leader. He cares for everybody, he wants to see everybody do their best. And if you’re doing something wrong, he’s going to tell you. But when you’re doing something right, he’s going to let you know too.”
On this Tuesday, Perrins led by example. And the effort gave the Panthers a chance to play another round.