Palestine Tops Progreso In Penalty Kicks For 4A State Championship
GEORGETOWN -- Bennett Gierkey recorded 200 minutes of shutout time in two games at the UIL state soccer tournament. It still wasn't enough.
For a second straight match, Gierkey went to Goalie Island and had to help save his Palestine side from absolute heartbreak.
He did it. For state.
The Wildcats defeated the Progreso Red Ants 4-3 in penalty kicks following a scoreless draw through 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime in Friday's Class 4A state championship game at Georgetown's Birkelbach Field.
"It is the greatest feeling in the world," Gierkey, clutching the title game's most valuable player award plaque, said. "I never in my life would have thought about winning a state championship out of Palestine, Texas."
East Texas had never won a soccer state championship since the UIL adopted the sport in 1983. In either the boys or girls divisions.
That changed last season when Lufkin's boys team won the Class 5A title. Now, a regional team is in first place for a second consecutive year.
"It takes a while to get there, of course, with the Metroplex schools and stuff like that," Palestine head coach John Absalom said. "Finally, we've got some kids that are playing at a higher level and starting at a younger age. They've put in some time. They are playing at a higher level than when I first got here. It just took a while.
"I was hoping our program would be the first one to win the state championship for East Texas, but Lufkin kind of beat us to it. That's alright. A year later, it doesn't matter to me."
Progresso (22-6-2) -- a team from a school that sits just north of the United States-Mexico border between Harlingen and McAllen -- was every bit built to handle a team like the Wildcats (30-1-2). It generally dominated possession time and put up 15 total shots to Palestine's seven attempts around the vicinity of the net.
Gierkey had to make five saves in regulation and four more in overtime to force penalty kicks.
Sweeper Allan Marquez and midfielder Humberto Mendoza also came up big on defense. Both faced one-on-one situations with Progresso attackers in open space in the second half and each got in the line of fire for deflections.
Progreso goalkeeper Oziel Jaramillo made a diving, one-handed save against a Marquez header at the 13:59 mark of the second half. It was one of two scoring chances Palestine enjoyed and, by far, the most promising.
Neither the Wildcats or Progreso generated much activity in the two 10-minute periods of non-sudden death overtime. Progreso's four shots were fairly straight forward.
That brought up the absolute final tiebreaker, penalty kicks, to decide the most important game of the season.
Progreso kicked first in each of the tiebreaker's five rounds.
Chris Giron, Luis Zavala and Tomas Garcia scored for Palestine to maintain an even score of 3-3 through three rounds of kicks. Gierkey got beat to his left side on each of Progreso's first three shot attempts.
The fourth Progreso shooter tried to go right. Gierkey dove and batted the ball away. Edgar Ayala gave the Wildcats a 4-3 lead seconds later with a shot to the right side of the net.
"There were a couple that were pretty tough ones," Gierkey said. "But the one that I blocked, I knew where he was going the whole way. I just had in my head, 'They did three left (shots). Let's dive to my right.'"
Progreso entered the fifth round of penalty kicks needing a goal and then a defensive stop by Jaramillo to save itself from losing the state championship. Its fifth shooter missed the goal wide left.
Palestine's bench charged the field in celebration.
Absalom had an idea his Wildcats squad could be good. He just didn't know how good.
Only seven of the 24 players on the state championship roster were seniors.
"We start two freshmen and four sophomores," Absalom said. "Really, to make it to the state championship game is unbelievable because we lost eight senior starters from last year's team. We were supposed to be in a rebuilding year, but sometimes things work differently. When you've got a keeper like Bennett Gierkey in goal, I told my kids in August, 'This is the type of keeper we can win a state championship with. That is no lie.' And we just did it."
Gierkey, one of those seniors, has a few college soccer scholarship opportunities.
He has not decided if he will play again.
"This is pretty up there," Gierkey reflected before leaving the field to meet with family and friends. "Pretty up there."