By Mark Nagi

The Austin-East Roadrunners boys soccer team capped off their first appearance in the state tournament with the trophy they craved.

But it wasn’t easy.

On Friday, May 28, A-E gave up a lead late in regulation, then rallied in overtime to defeat Gatlinburg-Pittman 4-3, with a 4-2 advantage in the shootout on May 28 in Murfreesboro.

“We just had to keep believing,” said A-E head coach Jonathan Netherland. “We have been through this before. We had to fight adversity all year but that’s our calling card. We wear it on our sleeves now. We can fight back through anything.”

The state tournament started with a cakewalk for the Roadrunners. In the quarterfinals, they shut out Gibson County 8-0. As the score would indicate, that game was never close. It was a different story in the semifinals on May 26, when A-E faced another first-timer in the state tournament, Merrol Hyde. That game was scoreless until the 72nd minute when Ezekiel Nsabiyuna picked up a loose ball and scored from ten yards out. The goal put A-E in the finals against G-P.

These teams were very familiar with each other. This was the fourth and final time the Roadrunners and Highlanders played in 2021. G-P won the first meeting 3-0 with A-E taking the District and Region championship game matchups.

The state title game started in exciting fashion as Highlanders defender Tristan Carroll put a shot past A-E keeper Jack Tambola, giving G-P a 1-0 lead in the 5th minute. But less than a minute later, A-E forward Masudi Nyembo used his left foot to beat G-P’s Lizandro Moradel, tying the game at one.

In that first half, the Highlanders had multiple opportunities to pick up another tally, but Tambola and the Roadrunners defense kept them out of the net.

Then, in the 34th minute, it was Nyembo again, this time with the right foot. He beat Moradel again, and the Roadrunners took a 2-1 lead into halftime.

“He is one of our most dynamic attackers,” said Netherland. “He just has to wait for his opportunity and when it comes, he strikes. He’s big and tall and I’m glad to have him. We were lucky to have him today.”

In the second half, the Roadrunners had most of the run of play, with a few great scoring chances. But they couldn’t put the game away. G-P gained confidence and with less than four minutes to go, Highlanders midfielder Johny Adair struck the soccer ball perfectly from 12 yards out, beating Tambola and tying the game at 2.

In the first overtime session, the Highlanders took the lead in the 88th minute on a pretty left-footed shot as Adair took advantage of the aggressive Tambola. 3-2 G-P.

“We wished we won at the end of regulation but our perseverance, that fight, that spirit has been the same every single game,” said Netherland. “I never had any doubt that we could come back because I’ve seen it before. We just had to get them to believe.”

It looked like G-P had all the momentum, but in the second overtime, the Highlanders were guilty of a handball in the box. A-E’s Cheikhna Seck made no mistake, burying the penalty kick to even the game at three.

“We put pressure on him every single day, so there is no more pressure he can feel in a game that he doesn’t feel during the week,” said Netherland.

The title was decided by penalty kicks. G-P saw one attempt stopped by Tambola and another hit the crossbar and bounced away. A-E converted all four of theirs, including the championship-winning kick by Seck.

“We’ve prayed so much,” said Netherland. “So, if anyone out there doubts the power of prayer, watch this game back. We prayed for this victory and God gave it to us.”