WESTTOWN — With less than 10 minutes to go between No. 19 Strath Haven at No. 14 West Chester Rustin, neither team seemed to have momentum, and it felt as though the game was destined for overtime.
Then, in the 73rd minute, Rustin midfielder Ryan Fincher lined up a free kick from about 30 yards out that soared over a number of players fighting to get a head on the ball and into the net. The goal gave the Golden Knights the lead, and Rustin fought off the Panthers the rest of the way to win the first-round District I tournament game 3-2.
The win sets up a road trip for Rustin (14-5) at third-seeded Neshaminy on Thursday night.
Strath Haven coach Ryan O'Neill said he was proud of the way his team was able to play with Rustin and felt not enough people gave them a chance to win. They held a 2-1 lead at the half, but it was defensive fundamentals and the pressure of the contest that wore them down in the end.
"It's a little hectic, and that's the playoffs,' he said. "Ultimately, a little bit of technical mistakes in the back and not getting it up the field (led to the go-ahead goal).
Though the Panthers had the lead most of the game, it was Rustin that opened up the scoring early. Jay Ringer fought his way into the box and found the back of the net off a pass from Bryan Boro in the second minute to give the home team the early 1-0 lead.
The early goal didn't lead to any sustained momentum for the home team, however. The rest of the first half belonged to Strath Haven, which drew even in the 20th minute. Senior forward Shane O'Neill struck the ball well from just inside the 18-yard box, putting the ball into the top right corner over the outstretched hands of Rustin keeper Justin Davis.
Six minutes later, the Panthers took the lead when Sean Myers found midfielder Nate Engleka's head off of a corner kick. Engleka nearly made it 3-1 when he found himself alone on a run down the middle of the field, but Davis made a great save to keep the deficit at one.
"We just knew we had to press harder,' Rustin coach Dave Tordone said. "We had to press them harder, we allowed them to get too easily out of the back and [Myers] is a fast kid that can play. He was creating some issues for us.'
The Golden Knights finally got their break and were able to tie the game 2-2 in the 58th minute. Matt Smith crossed the ball into a scrum of players, but Boro was able to get up for it and flick it past Strath Haven keeper Matt Eiel.
Fincher's goal in the 73rd capped a comeback that happened without one of their captains, Ringer, who went down in the 38th minute with an apparent leg injury. Tordone said it could be anything from an ankle sprain to a broken leg, which would leave Rustin without its second captain as it is already missing forward Justin Lucker.
After the Golden Knights took the lead, frustration for the Panthers (7-10-2) started to boil over. The referees had trouble agreeing on a couple of calls, which led to O'Neill yelling at the head official for clarification on one of them. He was given a yellow card, the second for the Panthers in a few minutes, and it was clear emotions were running high.
"A little frustration at the end and quite frankly some really not good calls ... and I think that fed into us and our frustrations a little bit and we let that get the best of us,' O'Neill said.