Staff Photo: John Bohn Berkmar's Awey Houry (45) defends East Coweta's Brandon Baksh (13) during the first half of a boys soccer Class AAAAAA semifinal state tournament game played at Berkmar on Wednesday.
LILBURN -- With one sprawling dive to his right, Juan Carlos Lopez sent Berkmar to its first-ever soccer state championship game.
After no penalty kick misses by either team, the junior goalkeeper made the clinching save in the seventh round of penalty kicks Wednesday night for the third-ranked Patriots in their 3-2 (7-6 on PKs) win over second-ranked and previously unbeaten East Coweta.
The Patriots' vocal crowd stormed the field in joy, thrilled that newcomer Berkmar (15-5-1) will now face perennial power and defending state champion Collins Hill in Saturday's Class AAAAAA title match.
"'We did it. We did it.' That's what I thought," Lopez said of his thoughts immediately after the save. "All the struggle. All this hard work and now we're in the final. It's the first time we've ever made it this far in soccer. We've turned around the soccer program."
Neither team flinched through six rounds of PKs, with Jonathan Dowis, Alexis Montanez, Alex Ramos, Kofi Twumasi, Juan Sierra and Israel Lopez converting the first six kicks for the hosts, while Matheo Gallardo's PK opened the seventh round of kicks.
Josh Richardson shot seventh for East Coweta (19-1-1), but Lopez was equal to the challenge. The goalie shared time in the shootout with fellow keeper Braulio Cobarubias, but was in there for the big save.
The stop pushed the Patriots to the next level after a few seasons of being close under coach Tracy Crouch, who has won a state title as a head coach at Parkview. But Berkmar hasn't even played for one, though it had years of success in Gwinnett under longtime head coach Steve Brown, who started the program and was in the crowd Wednesday night.
"It's everything for these boys," Crouch said. "It's such a neat experience. It's a special thing for these guys. We've had a lot of talent over the years but we've been just missing the final piece of the puzzle. And I've told these guys, it's just being selfless. It's playing for each other.
"It's awesome. It's such a cool experience to see them turn the corner and understand that the team is bigger than them, that the program is bigger than them. They want to leave a legacy."
Berkmar jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute with a hustle play from Montanez, who took a nice through pass from Twumasi into open space. Montanez's first shot was stopped by diving East Coweta goalkeeper Luke Oesterle, but the Patriot captain punched the rebound into the net.
East Coweta got the equalizer in the 34th minute on a breakaway by Conner Antley, who got behind the defense. Lopez charged out of the penalty box to challenge Antley, but his attempted clearance went off the Indians' forward and toward the net.
The Indians needed only 29 seconds into the second half to go up 2-1 when sloppy defense gave Ian Antley an open look in front of Lopez.
The Patriots answered in the 55th minute, quick-starting a free kick as East Coweta players argued the foul call. That left Rocky Guerra free on the right side of the penalty box and his shot forced Oesterle into another diving save, but Twumasi pounced on the rebound to tie the score 2-2.
Neither team managed a goal in the two, five-minute overtime periods and neither team seriously threatened. Berkmar had one shot on goal in the extra period to none for East Coweta, which had outscored its opponents 102-16 prior to Wednesday.
Berkmar had a 9-5 edge in shots on goal and likely wouldn't have faced OT or PKs if not for a handful of phenomenal saves by Oesterle in the East Coweta net. But the final save by Lopez is the one that the Berkmar community will remember for years.
"I'm speechless right now," Crouch said. "If the keeper can give you one (save in PKs), that's usually the difference. And that's what he did. He made some great saves in the regular match, too.
"This is super exciting for the school, for the community. Everybody was behind us."