EJ Fowler got up off the ground, raised his fists in the air and walked triumphantly toward the throng of his Centennial teammates headed his way.
On the heels of making the game-clinching save in penalty kicks against rival Mt. Hebron in the 3A East regional semifinals Thursday night, the Eagles’ goalie was soaking in the moment.
“Them knocking us off two years in a row (in the playoffs), this means alot” said Fowler, who made two saves in the penalty shootout to help Centennial to a 4-3 decision after playing the top-seeded Vikings to a 2-2 tie during regulation and two overtimes.
“It makes it 10 times sweeter to know that I actually had not (previously) beaten them on the grass or the turf. Beating them in PKs, ending their season, kind of felt good to me.”
Centennial coach Jim Zehe, who watched his squad win in penalty kicks for the second time this postseason, said Fowler (9 saves) seems to step up in the biggest moments.
“The thing that I’ve always been super confident about EJ is that when the time comes, he’s going to make a play. He’s not the kind of goalie that is going to get caught standing on his line,” Zehe said. “For him the most important thing is not overthinking it, just commit to it and go. And it seems like the bigger the moment, the better he is.”
The game itself lived up to every bit of the hype surrounding two of Howard County’s top three teams in the standings during the regular season that had played to a 3-2 decision — in favor of Mt. Hebron — earlier this year.
In a game played in heavy fog the entire way, Centennial had struck first on a nifty goal from Nick Haskins with 20:10 left in the first half. Michael Merkey flicked the ball ahead to Haskins, who outran Mt. Hebron goalie Shahin Manasterli (8 saves) to the ball and touched it by him into the net.
Mt. Hebron, which had started slowly, immediately picked things up after falling behind. The team began creating more offensive opportunities and was rewarded on a header by Johnny Linsenmeyer with 8:24 left before halftime.
“When you are playing against a team with that much quality, you know they are going to come right back at you,” Zehe said. “I wasn’t thrilled with how we played after scoring our first goal, but Mt. Hebron is a great team. Even if you are ready for their response, sometimes that’s not always enough.”
Both teams had chances to take the lead in the first 30 minutes of the second half. Mt. Hebron’s Pat Palin had a shot hit the post, while Centennial had several quality shots that either just missed or were saved by Manasterli.
It wasn’t until there was just 2:02 remaining in regulation that the ball found the net again and it was Centennial that temporarily grabbed the upper hand. On a counter attack opportunity, Merkey again provided the assist and this time found Ammar Narmouq on the left wing for the goal.
At the time, that appeared like it may have been the game-winning score. Atticus Cooke and the Vikings, however, had other plans.
In a last-ditch effort with time running down, Cooke tracked down a long, looping ball played from the midfield and got himself free behind the defense. He fired a hard shot that glanced off Fowler’s hands and hit the back of the net with exactly four seconds left on the clock to force overtime.
“It showed that obviously the kids didn’t give up and were going to keep fighting until the there was no time left,” said Mt. Hebron coach Mike Linsenmeyer.
In the extra periods, both teams had chances and both goalies came up big. Ultimately, things came down to penalty kicks.
Much like when it had beaten Wilde Lake in penalties in the opening round of the playoffs last week, Centennial had each of its first four shooters — Merkey, Bobby Nasafi, Justin Breedlove and Narmouq — convert their shots.
“It’s a bit of a crapshoot for the keepers, but we feel like it doesn’t have to be that way for our guys,” Zehe said. “You could see how confident they were in terms of where they placed the ball. For our guys to hit the first four again was just huge.”
Mt. Hebron also made its first two tries — conversions by Jacob Parrott and Lucas Oh. But on the Vikings’ third attempt, Fowler made his first big stop on a dive to his left.
Mt. Hebron goalie Torey Jones, who had come in just for penalty kicks, came up with a huge stop on Centennial’s fifth kick to extend things.
But with the game on the line, Fowler delivered one more huge stop on a dive to his right this time.
Centennial stormed the field, while Mt. Hebron was left suffering a loss in penalty kicks in the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
“Centennial played great and they won the penalties … that’s why they are moving on and we’re not,” Mike Linsenmeyer said. “There’s not much else to say, there really isn’t.”
Centennial will play Atholton, which beat J.M. Bennett 2-1 in the other semifinal contest of the night, for the regional championship on Tuesday.
Atholton 2, J.M. Bennett 1
The Raiders went on the road for the second straight game and delivered a victory to extend their season. Atholton got on the board first on a goal by Jordan Armstead. After J.M. Bennett answered to tie things up, Nathan Kim provided what ended up being the game-winner for the Raiders.