GARNER — Freshman Manny Perez had a feeling he was going to have a chance at a big shot for Garner in the Trojans’ first-round soccer playoff game against Wake Forest on Wednesday night. He did. And it couldn’t have been bigger.
Perez drilled a shot from 25 yards out into the left corner of the net with just over a minute remaining in the first five-minute sudden-death overtime period to lift the Trojans to a 4-3 victory over the Cougars.
The two teams battled through 100 minutes of soccer and the score was tied at 3-3. In the first sudden-death overtime, Garner controlled the action, keeping the ball in the Cougars’ end.
On the deciding attack, Garner pushed the ball up the left side, and sent a crossing pass into the middle of the field. Alejandro Carbajal fired a shot, but it was blocked and headed back toward Perez, alone on the right side.
The freshman had an open look at the goal, and he calmly took a couple of dribbles and launched a laser that found the left corner of the net.
“I saw the ball coming and I said, ‘Oh, this is a perfect chance,’” Perez said. “At halftime, I was like, ‘I’m going to get a shot in the second half and I’m going to make it.’
“I just received it and it was perfect and I just shot it into the goal.”
Garner (17-4-1), which won its second straight Greater Neuse River 4A Conference title and went through the regular season without a loss in the league, got a stiff challenge from Wake Forest (12-10-1), which finished sixth in the powerful Cap Eight Conference.
Garner coach Jon Sherwin knew that the Cougars would be tough competition, comparing them to conference rival Clayton, which lost to the Trojans by a goal and tied them in the regular season in a pair of back-and-forth matches.
“We looked at (Wake Forest) … and I said this would be like Clayton, which was really tough competition in our conference,” Sherwin said. “That’s the way we played Clayton, we’d score, they’d score.
“It was exactly like that.”
Garner scored first in each half, only to see Wake Forest match it. The score was tied at 2-2 at the end of regulation, then the teams played a pair of 10-minute overtime periods.
Wake Forest went ahead for the first time in the match with a goal in the first minute of the initial overtime period when Zac Morris scored on a free kick from 30 yards out on the left side just 46 seconds into the overtime period.
Garner tied it in the second overtime when Marco Perez had a free kick from near midfield and sent a high arching shot toward the goal. Carbajal got behind the Cougars defenders and headed the ball into the net to tie it at 3-3 with 8:40 left in the second overtime.
Two brilliant saves by senior defender Joey Giroux in a 30-second span a couple of minutes later kept the score that way.
Wake Forest had a throw-in from deep in the Garner end when the pass went into a pack of players in front of the goal and nearly rolled past the line, but Giroux came streaking in to kick it away at the last second. On the ensuing corner, the Cougars again got off a shot that was headed toward the net, but Giroux knocked the airborne ball away again just in front of the line.
“The game’s over and he saves us twice,” Sherwin said. “He had hurt his ankle earlier but the trainer said he was good to go. I put him in and sometimes players do things that make a coach look good. Those were fantastic plays.”
For Wake Forest, which kept battling back all night and finally had the lead, it was a tough loss. But Cougars coach Jeremiah Mattingly had nothing but praise for the effort of his team.
“We fought hard and played well,” Mattingly said. “When we took the lead in the first overtime, we kind of locked it in and I thought we were going to take it home at that point. But hat’s off to Garner. They kept pushing and kept going.
“They had the nice equalizing goal and then late there were just 22 fatigued players out there. … I loved the effort of my team tonight. I couldn’t be more proud of them. It was just a great battle.”
Garner took the lead in the seventh minute when a perfect through ball from Marco Perez found Bryson White on the left side with only the Wake Forest keeper to beat. He got past the keeper, who charged out of the net to meet him and had a wide-open shot to make it 1-0.
Wake Forest tied it on a goal by Meade Baskerville in the 35th minute.
Garner struck first again in the second half when Zach Hancock scored in the 64th minute. Less than a minute later, Wake Forest tied it when Will Rudolph scored on a crossing pass from Morris.
In the end, the Trojans regrouped, Sherwin said.
“In the middle of the game, I think we forgot what we were doing a little bit,” Sherwin said. “(Wake Forest) was getting a little chippy and we were getting a little whiny. I think we pulled it back together at the end. That last five minutes, that was pure soccer and it was pretty.”
Nothing was as pretty for the Trojans as the shot that Manny Perez took in the sudden-death overtime period.
“I just saw the prize right there, just looking at me,” Perez said. “We didn’t come here to lose, we came here to win. We weren’t going to get knocked out in the first round.”