THOMASVILLE — If they’d let them, Surry Central and Ledford might still be playing soccer right now.
The Golden Eagles battled the Panthers for 110 minutes in Wednesday night’s third-round match of the NCHSAA 2A state playoffs, and when the teams heard the final whistle on a fourth overtime period, they remained deadlocked at 2-2. The teams battled for 30 additional minutes with no score after Central’s Chaco Sanchez had tied the match on a goal with 16 seconds left in regulation.
Officially, the match ended in a tie, except that in the state playoffs, a winner has to be determined. So the Eagles went to a shootout with their hosts, the last team standing in the powerful Central Carolina 2A. It took 13 made goals before the Panthers escaped with a 7-6 win in the shootout and advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Surry Central ends its season with an overall record of 16-6, while Ledford improved to 21-3 and awaits the winner of a Thursday night match between Lake Norman Charter and Patton.
“We played 14 players for 110 minutes,” said Surry Central head coach Blake Roth. “I’ve never had a group fight as hard as those kids did against Ledford.”
The teams were tied 1-1 at the end of the first half. Ledford’s Jeffrey Romero scored on a penalty kick in the 20th minute to put his team in front, but Erik Cruz scored for the Eagles in the 30th. The Central goal came after Ernesto Caro took a free kick and sent the ball into a scrum near the goal. Cruz won the battle for the free ball after about two seconds and put one past the Ledford keeper to equalize.
During a second half that saw both teams mount numerous threats at the other’s goal, it was the state’s leading scorer, Ben Baker, who gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead with a goal in the 75th minute. It was the 67th goal of the season for Baker, the third-highest total ever run up by a men’s player in NCHSAA history.
“I had Nolan McMillen on him all night long,” said Roth. “Baker is averaging a hat trick a game, and Nolan held him to just one goal. Still, when a team gets a goal with five minutes left, they kind of expect to have the momentum and win in a game of two evenly-matched teams.”
However, the Eagles weren’t going down without a fight. Needing a goal, Roth decided to take his chances on Baker, and moved McMillen to an attacking center-mid position. Central gave Ledford a completely new look, and in the final minute, the Panthers cracked. McMillen sent a ball to Miguel Tello on the left flank, and Tello centered a ball to Cruz in front of the net. The sophomore was being marked, so he passed it back to Sanchez. The latter one-touched the ball inside the second post and buried it into the side netting.
The officials awarded Ledford a controversial free kick with seven seconds left, but Central keeper Ivan Padilla made the save, and the teams went to overtime.
Central almost won the match in a scrum in front of the Panthers’ goal with about 90 seconds left in the second overtime, but Ledford’s keeper made two excellent saves, and the teams went to two five-minute sudden death sessions with no score.
The shootout saw each side pick five players. All five Eagles made their shots, but so did all five of the Ledford players.
“We felt all of our first five would make, and we hoped one of them would miss, but they didn’t,” Roth said.
That sent it to sudden death PK’s. Each side made their first, and then Ledford made their second. It was Cruz’ turn for Central, and bad luck found him in the form of a steady drizzle that had gotten worse over the 110 minutes of play.
“He kind of lost his footing as he went to kick,” said Roth. “Erik slipped just a little bit on the wet grass. He got the shot off, but it went two or three inches above the bar.”
Cruz, who had played hard and well throughout the night, blamed himself. His teammates wouldn’t let him.
“For me, the best moment of the game was after we’d lost,” said Roth. “So often, you see the seniors slump over or cry when they realize their careers are over. But when Erik’s shot missed, he fell to the ground upset.
“Every one of my seniors went out there to him, picked him up, hugged him and brought him back with them.”