Trailing 2-0 early in the second half to the 11th-ranked team in the state, Southwestern’s hopes of advancing to a third-straight regional championship game were dimming.
The 17th-ranked Spartans recovered to get the match tied and survived two seven-minute overtime periods to send Wednesday’s Class A regional semifinal contest with visiting Covenant Christian to penalty kicks.
With a pair of misses by Covenant Christian and a spectacular save from goalkeeper Michael Clements, Southwestern pulled off the stunning comeback for a 3-1 advantage in penalty kicks and a trip to Knightstown booked for Saturday’s regional championship match against Greenwood Christian.
“In the moment, I didn’t think our chances were very good,” said Southwestern head coach Taylor Meredith after Covenant Christian doubled its lead to 2-0 just 86 seconds into the second half. “I apologized for doubting (my team). I told them I won’t doubt them from here on out however far we go.”
The Spartans (14-2-2) are going right back to where they’ve been at the end of the last two seasons – the regional championship game. Two years ago, Lutheran scored in the game’s final seconds of the second overtime period to steal the win. Last year, Cascade eliminated the Spartans in the 10th penalty kick.
“I think these guys will be more focused than we’ve ever been for a Saturday game at Knightstown,” said Meredith. “To lose after being so close those last two years, I think these guys will be locked in.”
Southwestern was anything but locked in Wednesday night against a formidable foe in Covenant Christian (8-10-3). The Warriors immediately put pressure on Southwestern and it produced a rebound goal for Maddux Thom less than four minutes into the contest.
The Spartans could not string together a strong offensive series but went into halftime trailing just 1-0.
Covenant Christian touched in quickly on a corner kick in the second minute of the second half and Josh Byrd directed a pass to Thom, who beat goalkeeper Michael Clements for a second goal with 38:34 left in regulation time.
Southwestern's Gavin Shaw, right, puts pressure on a Covenant Christian player for possession of the ball during Wednesday's regional semifinal game at Southwestern.
Southwestern needed a goal quickly and Constant Martinez made that happen. The French exchange student sent the ball sailing across the front of the net and Conner Jewell headed it into the goal to cut the Warriors’ lead in half.
Jewell had a hand in the game-tying goal as well. The senior defenseman pushed up and drew a foul inside the box that resulted in a penalty kick. Garreth Stringer beat Luca high into the net to change the momentum of the game.
“Conner Jewell had the header and he drew the penalty kick. That was a huge effort by him being a defender making two plays in the other box helping us get those two goals,” said Meredith.
With both teams trying to string together productive possessions in the game’s final minutes, Owen Stringer was tackled hard from behind in the midfield with 6:03 on the clock. The senior laid on the ground and had to be helped off the field.
As time ticked away, Stringer had ice on his lower back while sitting on the bench in pain.
With the game tied at the end of regulation, both teams prepared for two seven-minute overtime periods. Meanwhile, Stringer started moving around to see if he could get back in the game.
Covenant Christian had the best look at goal in the overtime periods. Zachary Jackson dribbled into firing range and delivered the potential game winner but Clements made the save.
At the end of the overtime periods, each team selected five players for penalty kicks. Owen Stringer’s name was on Southwestern’s list.
“I knew as soon as I got injured and I wasn’t going to play, I was begging our trainer to just let me take the PK. I know I’m on the list … just let me take the PK,” he said.
Clements did not have to make a save on Covenant Christian’s first two attempts. Byrd sent his attempt wide left of the goal. Andrew Crane’s went wide right.
Martinez took the first PK for Southwestern and smashed it into the top crossbar. After Crane’s miss, Stringer started the longest walk of his life from midfield.
“It was different,” said Stringer. “I’ve done that once or twice but it’s been awhile. The fans were crazy. It didn’t help that I was hobbling the whole way up there.”
Stringer steadied the ball on its resting spot and had his right hand supporting his lower back the whole time.
“I was just telling myself to stay calm. It’s just like practice … just put in into the back of the net,” he said.
Luca guessed Stringer was going to his left and was wrong. Stringer delivered dead center for a key 1-0 advantage.
Clements came through with the save of the season on Benjamin Matthies’ attempt. The shot was centered on goal and Clements caught the shot with his leg and pinned it between his ankles.
“We told our guys that they would put one off frame, Michael has to save one and we will be good to go,” said Meredith. “Luckily for us, they put two off frame and we never even had to get to our fifth kicker.”
Tucker Simmons followed with a high corner goal on the PK to give Southwestern a 2-0 lead with two more rounds to go.
Hudson Bell beat Clements to make it 2-1 bringing Jonah DeArmitt to the PK spot.
DeArmitt (photo, left) calmly delivered the game winner to set off the celebration.
“That kid is unbelievable,” said Meredith. “To be on the bench for three years as the 12th man, 13th man and never discouraged. He always accepted whatever role was given to him. This year, holy cow he has stepped up for us. For him to put it away for us … good for him. I am so proud of him.”
The Class A regional semifinal games are set for Saturday at Knightstown, Forest Park, Westview and Taylor.
At Forest Park, Christian Academy (12-5-3) travels to No. 8 Forest Park (13-6-1); No. 1 Westview (18-1-1) hosts No. 10 Wheeler (14-5-1); and No. 2 Park Tudor (17-2-1) takes on No. 4 Faith Christian (15-2-1).