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Bad-luck bounce, questionable goal … a season-ending shocker for Radnor

Radnor's Jackson Birtwistle dribbles upfield while Wilson's Ethan Stitzel sticks with him Saturday during the PIAA Class 4A title game. (Bill Rudick/For Digital First Media)

HERSHEY — Charlie Bernicker stood, eyes wide, mouth agape, as though he’d seen a ghost. What triggered the Radnor midfielder’s disbelief was, in the moment, perhaps even more terrifying.

As the clock at HersheyPark Stadium ticked under 30 seconds to play Saturday night in the PIAA Class 4A boys soccer final, Radnor and Wilson seemed destined for overtime of a taut affair. But by a margin that no one seems quite sure of — nor can they agree the margin even existed – overtime was never to be.

Instead, midfielder Lucas Sarge played a hopeful ball wide though a dummy run. Wilson winger Victor Vottero gained a step and shot from a sharp angle, though the legs of Radnor goalie Henry Cooke, toward retreating defender Josh Savadove, who stumbled by the most minute of margins as he scrambled for the line, the difference in a measure that will forever, in the minds of those wearing Radnor white, remain in question.

Wilson’s Patrick Ndambo heads a ball while almost taking the head of Radnor’s Bobby Hydrisko Saturday. Radnor’s Eliot Hayes is right on top of the play while Ben Verbofsky (10) has a view from the cheap seats. (Bill Rudick/For Digital First Media)

Vottero scored with 17 seconds left off an offensive move that materialized from nothing and the ball inched (millimetered?) over the line just before right back Savadove’s clearance, the only goal in Wilson’s 1-0 win.

“I saw Sarge get it, and he just barely got it across to me, and it just guided its way through,” Vottero said. “Devven (Frey) barely let it, I don’t know if he tried to miss it or what. I was there, and the goalkeeper barely got a piece. But I guess it was just good enough in that moment.”

“We were just trying to get to overtime because they had the pressure on us,” Savadove said. “They got one in. I had to get back. It went through Cooke’s legs, and it didn’t go in.”

The illusion was that some part of the ball crossed the line. Savadove covered ground quickly but stumbled just a fraction before sweeping the shot back toward the field of play, striking the underside of the crossbar and suggesting by its trajectory that the ball started further in the net. But with broadcast camera angles and a scrambling referee who didn’t get to the end line to judge such a microscopic margin, the illusion might be just that.

“It was a 2-on-1, and I thought I played it right,” Savadove said. “Cooke came out, made a good save. I thought I got it out.”

The only definitive answer was that Vottero had a gold medal around his neck and the game ball snuggly in his grasp as the Radnor players trudged off the field with a silver trophy.

The expectation of overtime didn’t just dawn in the final minute. Close contests have been the norm in these championships – four of eight finals were decided in an extra session, while Wilson’s win joined the Class 3A girls finale in requiring a game-winner in the final 10 minutes of regulation. Wilson (20-3-2) didn’t allow a goal in four states matches. Radnor allowed two markers in the opening 27 minutes of its states run – on this same turf against the Cumberland Valley side that vanquished Wilson for the District 3 title – then allowed just one more in the next 292 minutes, until the clocked showed 79:43 Saturday.

So a stalemated midfield affair should’ve shocked no one. Radnor’s first shot on target was an easy scoop for Ben Sulsky on a Jackson Birtwistle free kick from 35 yards in the 47th minute, and Radnor’s best chance was a Bernicker volley in the second half that rattled the crossbar.

“The ball just kind of showed up and coach preaches to us, ‘always expect the ball,’” he said. “And I expected it and I just put it one foot high and it hit the crossbar. From there, I had to forget about it, move on to the next play.”

Wilson limited Radnor’s set-piece chances, conceding just two corners and few long throws for Bobby Hydrisko, a product of the Raiders’ need to stay compact at the expense of attacking the flanks.

Wilson tightened the screws in the second half with seven corner kicks, but Radnor repelled them. Bennett Mueller blocked a half-dozen shots with his rangy frame, and Ben Verbofsky bested speedy winger Patrick Ndambo, who threatened but rarely latched on to through balls in dangerous areas.

The best Wilson chances were confined to shots from midfield, like a Tyler Dell volley that Nate Congleton dove to corral through a tangle of legs in the first half, or a Cooke save on a Sarge effort after the break.

That is, until those fateful final seconds.

For a select group of 30-some players, that final play will be dissected like the Zapruder film over the coming days and weeks. What is much more definitive is that the Raiders’ run will be recalled for much more than how it ended. From the fifth seed in District 1 and powered by a core of 11 contributing seniors, the Raiders ousted three district champions. They reached the program’s first big-school final since 1980 and the first of any kind since winning Class AA in 2004.

No camera angle of that postseason jaunt leaves any doubt about those achievements.

“It’s just amazing how much they’ve affected me as a sophomore and how much I’ve learned from them,” the sophomore Bernicker said of the senior class. “This year, playing behind kids like Eliot Hayes and Bennett Mueller and Evan Majercak and Ben Verbofsky, those kids never stop fighting. We came into this playoff and for me, it was every game, oh, maybe we’re going to lose this game, and then for someone that’s one of those seniors, they have all of us believing, no, we are not losing this game.”

“They played their hearts out for each other, and they love each other as a family,” coach Joe Caruolo said. “The fact that they’ve gotten this far, they’re going to go down in history and have one of the most memorable experiences they’ve ever had in their lives. And not just how they’ve impacted each other, but the school and the community and everybody around them. The fact that they had the power to do that and made the run, they’ll always remember that.”

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