By LARRY PETERSON
CNA sports writer • firstname.lastname@example.org
After a two-match losing streak on the road earlier in the week, the Creston boys soccer team provided fans with some excitement in their final home match Thursday night.
The 3-2 senior night victory came in an overtime penalty kick shootout, as the Panthers outscored the Trojans 4-2 in the PK round. Goalkeeper Alex Nielsen blocked the first two Atlantic attempts, allowing Creston to seize a 2-0 lead on kicks by Conner Pals and Franky Martinez.
Each team traded goals from that point, but the Panthers clinched it before Atlantic’s fifth attempt as both Levi Eblen and Gage Cheers knocked in their tries to make it 4-2.
It was the second PK overtime victory of the season for Creston, which ends the regular season at 8-6 and a final Hawkeye 10 mark of 3-3. It ended up being the match for fourth place in the conference, as Atlantic fell to 2-4 and 7-7 overall.
With the first substate match coming up Monday at Winterset, it’s now assured the Panthers will finish above .500 after going only 3-11 last year, and 0-6 in league play.
“I’m really happy for the guys that they (clinched) the winning record, because they’ve worked really hard for it,” said Creston coach Jesus Rodriguez.
It was the fifth match in seven days for the Panthers, battling a case of tired legs and several nagging injuries. Forward McClain Haines missed the match after suffering a mild concussion in Tuesday’s match at Denison. He is questionable for Monday’s playoff opener, but possibly available for the second round next Wednesday if the Panthers win.
Sophomore Conner Pals provided the offense to break the 0-0 tie in the second half with 27:27 left.
“He played over the top of the ball, Franky (Martinez) was on the end of it and passed it back to Pals, and he went through two defenders to slide his shot past the keeper,” Rodriguez said. “It hit the cross bar and went in.”
Atlantic answered a minute later with the first of two goals by sophomore Matthew Smith. At the 8:19 mark Smith struck again for a 2-1 Trojan lead, but this time it was Creston that immediately answered with Pals scoring again on a Josh Sawtelle assist.
“Sawtelle chested the ball, he played it over the defense and Pals knocked it over the keeper’s head,” Rodriguez said.
Martinez nearly gave the Panthers the victory in the final 90 seconds, but his shot went over the bar on the right side of the goal.
Smith was wide on a free kick after a Panther foul in the first overtime, and the teams went to a second 10-minute session. This time it was Pals that shot wide on a free kick with 22 seconds left, and the teams went to the PK shootout still deadlocked at 2-2.
The Panthers were dominant in the shootout, including two key blocks by Nielsen in the net.
“Once you pump Nielsen up, he’s good and it creates a lot of pressure for the other team when they miss that first one,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Nielsen said. “I look at his (shooter’s) plant foot. It tells you everything. Some of the fast shooters you have to guess, because it’s so bang-bang. If you stop that first one, it gets your adrenaline going, helps your confidence.”
Rodriguez said it was no coincidence that the Panther PK shooters were perfect in four tries.
“We practice those every time before a game,” Rodriguez said. “I tell the guys, you never know when you’re going to need them. We didn’t miss any. We were shooting hard.”
The Panthers begin tournament play 6:30 p.m. Monday at Winterset against the Huskies. In their previous meeting this season, Winterset won 1-0 in overtime.
“We had several chances to win in regulation, and we didn’t have Franky with us yet,” Rodriguez said. “We still don’t know if we’ll have McClain or not. The trainer is evaluating him. It should be a good game.”
Seniors honored before the match were Cheers, Aaron Shaw, Kevin Pellman, Sawtelle and Martinez.
Creston 3, Atlantic 2 (OT)
Creston (3) — Conner Pals (Franky Martinez assist), 27:27 second half; Pals (Josh Sawtelle assist), 7:20 second half. PK shootout — Pals good, Martinez good, Levi Eblen good, Gage Cheers good. Shots on goal — 16. Individual shots — Pals 5, Martinez 5, Eblen 2, Sawtelle 2, Brant Hudson 1, Kaleb Cook 1. Keeper saves — Alex Nielsen 11. Cards — None.
Atlantic (2) — Matthew Smith 26:02 second half; Smith 8:29 second half. PK shootout — Cody Kirchoff blocked, Zachary Brooks blocked, Stuart Hoegh good, Smith good (Creston win clinched before fifth attempt). Cards — Brett Keegan (Y).