Ryan Coulter said he never felt the pressure. The look on his face said otherwise.
Coulter stopped four of eight penalty kicks, including one with his team’s fate on the line, and Science Hill product Jonny Campbell scored the winner as East Tennessee State advanced to the final of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament by outlasting Stetson 5-4 in an eight-round penalty-kick shootout Friday night at Summers-Taylor Stadium.
The teams finished 110 minutes of regulation and overtime tied 3-3. Top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast beat Mercer 2-1 in the other semifinal.
ETSU (10-6-4) and FGCU (11-5-2) will play in Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game. The winner earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Bucs are the first No. 6 seed to make the A-Sun final.
“Football’s a funny game,” Coulter said. “It’s my favorite game in the world, but if we lose that game tonight, I hate it. It’s a cruel game. I feel so bad for Stetson. My emotions, I don’t know where I am right now. It’s incredible.
“I love penalties as a keeper. There’s no pressure.”
There was plenty of pressure on Coulter, who heroically kept the Bucs’ season alive with a stop in the fifth round of the shootout. Stetson’s Gonzalo DeMujica stepped up to the spot knowing he could end it with a goal.
Instead, Coulter robbed him with a diving stab, keeping ETSU alive.
After both teams converted in the next two rounds, both sudden-death, Campbell came on and drilled the ball into the back of the net. When Coulter stopped the next one, by Ryan Asare-Bediako, it was over and a wild celebration began.
“I trained and practiced a lot and buried every one, so I was ready for the occasion,” Campbell said. “It’s good to have it in your hands. When you can step up and take your chance like that, it’s awesome.”
ETSU coach Scott Calabrese said he wasn’t surprised Campbell came through in the biggest moment of the season.
“Jonny’s actually, when it comes to finishing and being around the goal, he’s one of our best,” Calabrese said. “He’s got tremendous confidence. I felt, given those qualities, he’d be a perfect guy to take a penalty.
“You can practice these things and then you get to the game and your penalty kick decides whether your season continues or is over. Sometimes the occasion can beat you.”
The occasion didn’t beat Campbell, a reserve midfielder who was playing in his 10th game of the season.
The result actually goes as a tie on each team’s record.
David Geno, Nate Hodges, Blaike Woodruff and Alesi Osorio also connected in the shootout. Among Coulter’s victims in the shootout was A-Sun player of the year Jonathan Mendoza.
“I felt really comfortable that Ryan was going to save one or even two,” Calabrese said. “It was an incredible display from him.”
It was the eighth penalty-kick shootout in Coulter’s soccer career. He’s won them all.
“Our kids played with their hearts and soul,” said Stetson coach Logan Fleck, whose team finished 10-5-4. “I couldn’t be prouder of these kids, of their effort or their class.”
The stage for overtime was set by a wild finish to regulation time.
Geno broke a 2-2 tie with a 20-yard blast with 2:12 left in regulation. The Hatters got the equalizer on an own goal with 44 seconds left when Mendoza’s cross deflected into the goal off an ETSU defender.
A minute and half into overtime, Stetson’s Asare-Bediako blasted a shot off the goal post.
After 20 minutes of sudden-death produced no goals, the teams prepared for the first penalty-kick shootout in the A-Sun tournament since 2004.
Stetson scored twice early. Stetson’s J.J. Bostic connected in the fourth minute after a corner kick. Three minutes later, Joakim Helland curled in a 30-yard free kick and the Hatters were up 2-0.
All 11 ETSU players huddled together after Helland’s goal, which left the mostly partisan crowd of 519 stunned.
The two goals put the Bucs in desperation mode and they responded in the 23rd minute when Frank Doumbe scored.
A mixup in the Stetson defense left Bostic trying to clear the ball. Doumbe challenged him and deflected the ball toward the goal. Doumbe, usually the fastest player on the field, beat everyone to the ball and poked it into the goal.
Three minutes into the second half, Geno got the equalizer for the Bucs when he headed in a goal. The tying score was set up when Hodges’ free kick was headed into danger by Aaron Schoenfeld.
In the other semifinal, Xavier Silva had a goal and an assist as FGCU won its first-ever postseason game.
“It’s nice to get here and we’re pleased with that,” FGCU coach Bob Butehorn said. “But our work is still not done.”
FGCU’s Cristian Raudales opened the scoring in the 37th minute with a header off a cross from Silva, who chipped the ball just over the hands of Mercer goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh. Raudales, open near the right post, headed it into Ranjitsingh’s chest, but the momentum carried the goalkeeper and the ball into the net.
FGCU made it 2-0 with 31:48 left in the second half on a header by Silva. Federico Crespo did most of the work, using a nifty move to dribble past Mercer’s Ashani Samuels before sending a cross into the six-yard box. Silva calmly nodded it home.
Mercer clawed back with a goal from Ehjayson Henry with 25:33 remaining.
Henry came within inches of tying it up with 12:38 left after a mixup in the FGCU defense, but his shot was just wide of the left post.
Mercer controlled possession for much of the last 20 minutes and the Bears had one last gasp as the clock wound down. Joey Heavner lofted a shot from the left side with two seconds left. FGCU goalkeeper Nathan Ingham jumped and tipped the ball over the goal as time expired.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Ingham said. “I knew there was only three seconds left so I knew he had to shoot and I didn’t have to cheat on the cross. I stayed tight to my line and I made the save when I needed to.”