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Ryan boots shootout game winner for Tiger boys

MECHANICSBURG — Gannon Ryan stepped up for perhaps the biggest kick of his life with the game hanging in the balance.

Tied at one in a penalty-kick shootout, Ryan tried to clear his mind.

The last thing on the junior’s mind was missing.

The East Juniata forward struck the ball and found the top of the netting behind Halifax goaltender Benjamin Anderson and the successful conversion proved to be the difference as the Tigers topped the Wildcats, 2-1, on penalty kicks in a thrilling PIAA Class A first-round boys soccer matchup at Eagle View Middle School on Tuesday night.

The Tigers advance to face Dock Mennonite of District 1, which defeated Devon Prep (District 12), 4-0. The game will be on Saturday, with the site and time to be determined.

“You have to stay calm and you can’t really think about anything,” Ryan said. “You have to focus on getting the goal — afterward it is a thrill, knowing it gives us the lead. When you walk up you have to be calm and focused. I knew what I was going up there to do.”

The Tigers (11-11) survived an offensive onslaught by Halifax (21-2), as the Wildcats put up 31 shots against the Tiger defense, but East Juniata goalkeeper Andrew Hunter rose to the occasion, making 21 saves — including multiple brilliant ones — in the victory.

Hunter made two big saves in the penalty shootout, denying Tai Lehman with a diving stop before sprawling out to deflect the shot of Nathan Berger, who scored the lone Halifax goal in regulation on the only ball all night that gave Hunter any trouble.

“I’m really excited,” Hunter said. “I’ve never done that before. I knew something was up tonight. I’ve saved a lot of penalties in practice, but I just went out to do what I do.”

The Tigers played a great first half by keeping a Halifax team that had outscored them 12-2 in three previous matchups this season off balance with a dominant performance by the back line and a midfield attack that won all of the 50-50 balls in the opening half.

“The difference tonight was that we are a possession team, and this was a great field for a possession team,” East Juniata coach Mike Ryan said. “That’s how we beat that team, with the playing surface and being able to possess the ball. We teach a European style with the possession style up into an area, and we could do that on a surface like this.”

The Berger goal was the lone blemish for the Tigers in an otherwise great first half. The East Juniata defense held two of the Tri-Valley League’s top scorers in Nathan Tanner and Preston Lebo off the board and kept the Wildcats from getting off to the races and using their speed to flip the script.

“The goal was to stick with the game plan of finding that top striker and finding his feet,” Ryan said. “I tried a few different strikers up there because Gannon is great at handling the ball. I tried to move him to a position where we could get the ball through the center of the field there and it worked well. We put ourselves in a 4-4-2 to try and win this game — unfortunately we couldn’t do it in the overtime periods — but the guys got it done.”

Hunter was peppered early and often with shots after halftime, facing 25 shots in the second half and overtime periods. The goalie was decisive when he needed to be to get stops and dug deep for some heroic saves on multiple occasions, including one where he staved off five Halifax corners and a shot off a throw-in that deflected off his hands before he could regain possession.

The junior keeper was swarmed after the game-winning save and exited the field to his teammates’ chanting his name as he approached the bench, showing appreciation for their keepers’ valiant effort.

“Andrew amazes me every night,” Gannon Ryan said. “Just to know that he is back there protecting that goal is the greatest feeling in the world.”

The Tigers’ goal came with 22:49 left in regulation, as East Juniata’s Cade Brubaker was tripped from behind in the box, drawing a penalty. Brubaker converted the shot with ease, tying the game in regulation.

The Tigers then used more stellar play fom their back line to survive, before reaching penalty kicks.

The first shot off the leg of Xavier Clement found the back of the net for East Juniata, before Tanner matched him. A miss by East Juniata’s Rowan Smith and a save by Hunter kept the kicks even at 1-1. Jake Brackbill’s shot for the Tigers was saved before Wesley Rhoades sent a shot wide for Halifax.

Ryan made the next shot and the Tigers held the edge after Berger’s shot was saved. Colby Enders found the post on the last chance for Halifax.

“Andrew stepped up and had perhaps the greatest biggest game of his season,” Mike Ryan said.

“Nobody believed in us this year,” Gannon Ryan said. “We didn’t do too hot last year, and we actually lost the first round of districts to the team that we beat this year. It’s thrilling. Being able to come this far with a team that is young still is impressive.”

East Juniata 2, Halifax 1

First half

H–Nathan Berger, 10:02

Second half

EJ–Cade Brubaker (PK), 22:47

Shootout

EJ: X — — X —

H: X — — — —

Shots: H 31-11. Corners: H 7-4. Saves: EJ-21 (Andrew Hunter), H-3 (Benjamin Anderson).

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