EXETER - It was hard not to feel bad for the Great Valley High School boys soccer team. They had enjoyed a dream season, filled with one memory after another. The ending to their story, however, was about as heartbreaking as it gets.
The undefeated Patriots were so close to reaching Hershey and the state championship game they could taste the chocolate, leading their state semifinal playoff match over Conestoga Valley with only five minutes remaining in regulation on Tuesday night.
What happened next, though, only left a bitter taste in their mouths.
District 3 champ Conestoga Valley tied the game in the final minutes of the second half off a questionable handball in the box call that resulted in a penalty kick. Then the Buckskins scored the game-winning goal late in the first sudden-death overtime period to post a stunning, 2-1, victory over the shocked Patriots in their PIAA Class AAA semifinal round playoff game inside a frigid Exeter Township High School's Don Thomas Stadium.
Conestoga Valley (23-2-2 overall) earned a spot in the state championship game on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium against District 7 runner-up Upper St. Clair (22-1-1), who downed Cumberland Valley by a score of 2-1 in the other semifinal.
Great Valley (24-1), on the other hand, not only suffered its first loss, but also saw its outstanding season come to an end.
With the game deadlocked, 1-1, in the first 15-minute, sudden-death overtime period, Conestoga Valley sophomore Connor Whitacre ended the match when he netted the game-winner with 2:11 left on the clock.
Whitacre scored on a sensational shot from the top of the box, after a cross by teammate Adam Eidemiller. It set off a wild celebration by the Buckskins' players and their supportive crowd.
A number of Great Valley players, meanwhile, sat on the frozen turf in stunned disbelief.
"There's nothing you can tell them right now that's going to ease the pain,' said Great Valley coach Dave Moffett. "In time, they'll be able to look back fondly on the season and all that they accomplished.'
Great Valley had completely controlled the game up until the final five minutes of regulation.
The Patriots scored just over four minutes into the match, with 35:53 remaining in the first half, on a goal by senior Patrick Murphy to make it 1-0.
They got the pivotal first-goal of the match on a corner kick. Luis Benitez Palermo bended a beautiful left-footed shot in on goal, and Murphy was there to put it away.
Great Valley would cling to that lead the rest of the way.
Conestoga Valley's pressure really started to mount with under 20 minutes to play in regulation, as they desperately attempted to get the equalizer.
They got the break they were looking for with 5:29 to go. Great Valley, on a play in which the ball appeared to have hit their player in the chest, was called for a hand-ball in the box.
Conestoga Valley's Nathan Delgado took advantage of the fortunate break, burying the kick into the bottom left corner to tie the match at 1-1 and force overtime.
"We just couldn't put them away,' said Moffett. "We had a number of chances to go in front by two goals. Even so we had it there for the taking with five minutes left, and then we got a little unlucky on that penalty kick call.
"I thought it hit our player in the chest. That call was a complete game-changer.'
It gave Conestoga Valley the momentum heading into overtime, and they controlled the play. Just when it appeared, though, a second overtime may be upcoming, the Buckskins ended it with 2:11 left on Whitacre's goal.
"When I saw it go in the back of the net, it was an amazing feeling,' said Whitacre. "The game clearly changed on that penalty kick. They were disappointed with that call and we could tell we had them on the ropes.
"To come back like we did and to be headed to the state championship game is unbelievable. It's just a crazy feeling, one that you can't describe.'
Great Valley's season, although it ended on a frustrating and disappointing loss, was nothing short of incredible. The Patriots won the Ches-Mont League title, and also the District 1 Class AAA crown.
"I'm so proud of them for everything they've done,' said Moffett. "I love them all.'
Conestoga Valley 2
Great Valley 1 (OT)
Conestoga Valley 0 1 1 — 2
Great Valley 1 0 0 — 1
Conestoga Valley goals: Delgado, Whitacre.
Great Valley goal: Murphy.
Goalie saves: Rider (CV) 7; Fuydal (GV) 7.