Tuesday, April 03, 2012

SPORTS >> Penalty kicks lift NP

Leader sports writer

Conner Thomen was bruised and battered following a grueling game that ended with a dramatic penalty-kick shootout, but it didn’t stop the North Pulaski goalkeeper from joining in the celebration following the Falcon’s 7-5 victory over Mills University Studies at Falcon Stadium on Friday.

Thomen made three big saves in regulation, including one that resulted in a kick to the face at the 12:39 mark of the second half that kept him on the ground briefly before he shook it off and made another save three minutes later.

The Comets finally got one past him in the 37th minute to tie the game at 3-3 and eventually force overtime, but that’s when Thomen really showed his grit with two crucial stops that helped the Falcons (1-4, 1-1) take the victory.

“I was so scared about the shootout,” Thomen said. “So nervous walking into it; I can’t even believe I blocked those two. Regulation though, I just get into a mode and keep going. I just can’t stop myself. When I got kicked in the box, I felt pain for a minute, and it went away.”

Mills made its first kick of the overtime period before Ulysses Arres answered for North Pulaski. Thomen then stopped the next Mills attempt, and Chris Laxtar gave the lead back to the Falcons with a nice strike into the lower left corner of the net.

The two teams traded goals again before Thomen made his second stop and Alex Edwards put the game away for the Falcons with a line drive to the left side.

“That was nerve racking, it was exciting, it was fun, it was frustrating, all at the same time,” North Pulaski coach Jeff Osborn said. “I told the guys that if we could control the middle of the field, we could basically boot the ball on our side and keep it there. So that was kind of our strategy going in.”

Christian Florez gave the Falcons an early lead in the fourth minute when he took a header past the Mills goalkeeper following assists from Edwards and Jeremy Castaldo. The Comets tied the match midway through the first half and took over the lead at the 12:18 mark with their second goal that gave them a 2-1 halftime advantage.

Edwards tied the game once again at the 12-minute mark of the second half with the most impressive goal of the night when he took a header and turned it around with a backwards kick to catch the Mills goalkeeper completely off guard for the score. Arres got the lead back for the Falcons with 19:57 remaining in regulation with a perfect strike from the right side.

The Falcons went into prevent mode after that and appeared to have worn their opponents down when the Comets suddenly came back to life in the final five minutes, scoring with a one-on-one breakaway at the 3:22 mark. Edwards had an opportunity to put it away in regulation with a penalty kick at 1:33, but his delivery was just high.

“I didn’t say a word,” Osborn said of Mills’ late goal. “That goal was scored, they dropped their heads for about five seconds, and then they knew there was still three minutes left in the game, and we still had a chance to win.

“At worst, we were going to go to overtime – penalty kicks, so we were in prevent mode. It worked for about 20 minutes, and the last three minutes, the defense got a little fatigued.”

Not only was it North Pulaski’s first win of the season, but the celebration afterward also led to the first career Gatorade bath for Osborn, who was dowsed with a cooler during his post-game talk.

“Conference or not, I tell the guys that every game counts, every minute counts,” Osborn said. “I can see the progression. I’m just so proud of them, because they work so well at practice, and a lot of times, what they do in practice doesn’t translate into the game. But tonight, it did. They played a good team, they came out on top, and I couldn’t be more proud.”

North Pulaski hosted Sylvan Hills Tuesday night after The Leader’s deadlines.