Palestine Boys Take Down Kilgore In Penalty Kicks To Reach State Title Game
GEORGETOWN -- Palestine goalkeeper Bennett Gierkey navigated the space between a sweet reward and a long bout with what-ifs masterfully.
The senior propelled his side to the Class 4A state championship game with two stops in penalty kicks against Kilgore for a 3-2 situational win. It followed a scoreless draw through 80 minutes of regulation and another 20 minutes of overtime in the semifinal round Wednesday at Georgetown's Birkelbach Field.
Gierkey made an additional eight saves in the 100 minutes of game play. A single misstep in that enormous span would have sent the Bulldogs to face Progreso at 2:30 p.m. Friday in Georgetown rather than Palestine.
"I love the pressure," Gierkley said. "I always say that. I'm a firm believer that those who can step up to the plate will do it. I believe I stepped up to the plate today."
Palestine (29-1-2) -- which surpassed its 2007 team as the best in school history as far as advancement -- handed a Kilgore squad that reached the state semifinals last year its second loss of the 2016 campaign.
Kilgore closed its season with a 19-2-7 overall record.
Both sides regretted the all-East Texas battle had to go the absolute distance. Penalty kicks certainly match working for a late-game goal in thrill, but it's an individual game rather than a team effort.
The decisive tiebreaker works in similar fashion to baseball innings. Each team is asked to shoot for a goal from a distance of about 12 yards in their offensive share of five rounds while the keepers simultaneously try defend the opposing squad's shot.
Gierkey made a bold statement on Kilgore's very first attempt. He dived right and successfully blocked the Bulldogs' initial kick, which caused Kilgore's remaining four shooters to reconsider that side of the goal.
Yet the Bulldogs, tied 1-1 in the situation, went back to the side on their third shot. Gierkey made another stop.
Tomas Garcia put the Wildcats back in the driver's seat with a successful kick and Edgar Ayala sustained the effort in the fourth round after David Garcia nailed an attempt in the bottom of the third for Kilgore.
Down 3-2, the Bulldogs needed to score in the fifth round and also stop Palestine's last shot to extend the contest beyond its five-round schedule.
Kilgore's fifth shooter missed over the top of the net to end the game.
"Usually, you can read their hips and see where they're going to go," Gierkey said. "The first one, it was easy. The second save was a little more difficult, but I was able to get a hand on it."
The Bulldogs took 17 wide-ranging shots to Palestine's five through game play. Many sailed around the goal and did not require stops.
However, the Wildcats did enjoy more realistic scoring opportunities. They didn't get enough of the ball on four pointblank headers and failed to convert after shaking Bulldogs keeper Tomas Tapia out of position twice through the contest.
Kilgore missed three close looks, including a shot off the cross bar with 1:38 to play in the first overtime period.
"We battled the whole time," Bulldogs head coach Austin Walker said. "We had our chances and, unfortunately, they didn't go in the back of the net. I feel like we outplayed them at times. Sometimes it's just not meant to be. The ball just doesn't go in the back of the net. That's unfortunate."
Palestine will remain in Georgetown in the intermediate time ahead of the championship game.
The Wildcats are one victory away from becoming the second East Texas team to ever win a soccer state championship. Lufkin's boys team won the Class 5A title last year.
"We're just going to relax," Palestine head coach John Absalom said. "We might go watch a move. Just take it easy. We might come out and watch one or two games as long as the weather is good. That's about it."