Photo by Ben Beitzel

Photo by Ben Beitzel

NORCROSS -- Tied after 80 minutes of regulation and 10 minutes of overtime, the Wesleyan boys had a chance to break Greater Atlanta Christian's stranglehold on the area title.

GAC missed its first penalty kick and Wesleyan was looking at snapping a six-year streak with its fifth shot.

Booted into the top left corner, the ball hit the back of the net and students rushed the field.

Wesleyan claimed its first 11-AA/A crown since 2001 by beating the rival Spartans 3-2 on Friday. The Wolves, who lost the season's earlier matchup with GAC 1-0, won the penalty kick round 5-4 and secured home-field advantage for the first round of the state playoffs.

"This is only the second area title for the Wesleyan boys," head coach Billy Coxhead said. "It's been nine years and GAC has won it seven or eight times in the interim. So it's really big for us.

"We've had one home playoff game, and that was in 2001, so we now get a home playoff game for just the second time in school history. Which is really great for us."

As excited as the Wolves were, as disappointed as the Spartans were, both know the emotions must be short-lived. Matched up with an area that includes Westminster, Paideia and Decatur, both teams are looking at a tough first-round draw.

"We feel like we're good on the road," Spartans head coach Thom Jacquet said. "There's not teams out there that we're afraid to play. If we have to go to Westminster, fine, we'll do that. We'll be competitive wherever we go.

"Our main goal was to qualify for state and we did that."

The battle for the area title was evenly fought.

Both teams came back from deficits.

Both teams got excellent saves from their goalkeepers.

Both teams missed out on chances to win it outright.

Both teams left the field knowing there was a lot more work to do.

"It was what we expected," Jacquet said. "Before the game, I said it might end up in penalties because we're so evenly matched.

"We got down and then we came back and scored two. We knew it wasn't over then. But good chances on both sides."

Wesleyan's sophomore keeper Eric Sunderman held GAC scoreless in the first half and helped his team take a 1-0 lead.

Just a few minutes in, Sunderman gobbled up a shot right on the goal line. He pounced on another sure shot with 11 minutes to play in the first half, curling his body around the ball just as it got to the line.

A few minutes later, Wesleyan got on the board.

Greg Mackenzie took a hard shot from inside the penalty box on the right side. GAC's freshman keeper Matt Watts deflected that away, but Casey Ryan was there for the rebound. He actually had to get his own rebound. Ryan headed the ball off the crossbar, but chested the ricochet down and knocked the ball home in the 32nd minute.

The Spartans answered with a pair of goals less than two minutes apart in the second half.

A powerful shot from the far right side by Vishal Patel tied the game with 28:40 remaining in regulation and Jimmy Stahlke put GAC up 2-1 by heading in a corner kick 1:54 later.

Stahlke's goal was off a corner kick from Kyle Rees.

Watts, not to be outdone, helped the Spartans hold that lead for another six minutes. His most impressive save in that span came on a low diving stab at the post on a shot labeled for the back of the net. Then Mackenzie pulled off some spectacular footwork in the box and tied the game again.

"I love the fact that we came back from being down 2-1," Coxhead said. "I thought we may have folded. To give up two goals in about a three-minute span, we really lost the momentum. I thought we might have been just throwing in the towel. So to come back and tie it up, 2-2, was special."

Mackenzie had an opening early in the sequence and waited, forcing him to dance around the collapsing defenders to find another lane. Mackenzie didn't miss that chance and his goal was the last one scored until the triumph in PKs.

"I thought we had the better of the opportunities in overtime," Coxhead. "Especially in the first five-minute period, I thought we had a couple chances we should have finished. But GAC defends well. If you hold the ball a second too long, that's too long for them to stuff the shot and take the ball from you.

"So I've got nothing but good things to say about GAC. After what they lost last year, I don't know how in the world he puts a team like this on the field again."

GAC won the state championship last year, but was ravaged by graduation. The Spartans have eight new starters and no seniors on the team.

"It's a young team and we're playing a lot better than we were at the beginning of the season," Jacquet said. "Everything's good. We're disappointed about tonight, but we all know it's not the end of the world."