Just seconds away from elimination, the East Tennessee State soccer team had one last gasp.
It was turned away by a spectacular play.
Yianni Sarris stopped a certain last-second goal with a season-saving defensive header, allowing Florida Gulf Coast to capture the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship by beating the Bucs 1-0 at Summers-Taylor Stadium.
The top-seeded Eagles, in their first year of postseason eligibility, improved to 12-5-2. They earned the A-Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The pairings will be announced today at 4:30 p.m.
“My roommate, my best friend, saved my butt,” FGCU goalkeeper Nathan Ingham said. “I couldn’t be happier. It was going in. It was dead center and Yianni just saved me there.”
Scott Harrison scored the game’s only goal on a header with 1:20 remaining.
ETSU, the defending champion, had two first-half goals wiped out by offsides calls and finished 10-7-4.
“It wasn’t our day,” ETSU senior forward Aaron Schoenfeld said, fighthing back tears.
The FGCU program had to wait four years to be eligible for A-Sun tournament, and it made the most of its first chance.
“You have to have a vision,” A-Sun coach of the year Bob Butehorn said. “Anything you do in life, if you have a passion and a vision, it’s an easy sell. It was worth all the work we did.
“I’m so happy because the guys that couldn’t be here last year didn’t get the chance that these guys got. And these guys took advantage of it.”
Harrison broke a scoreless tie when he headed in a long cross from Francesco DiStefano, who let the pass fly from near the right sideline.
“When I looked up, I saw him looking at me,” Harrison said. “I knew he was going to put it in there. That’s what Coach tells us to do, whenever I’m in to put it up there.”
It was the second goal of the year for Harrison, a 6-foot-3 senior who played 15 minutes in the final.
“Not a very dangerous chance,” ETSU coach Scott Calabrese said. “The ball snuck in. That puts you one-nil down and not a whole lot of time to get back in it.”
But the Bucs almost got back in it. Pushing everyone, including goalkeeper Ryan Coulter, forward, they got the ball into the FGCU penalty area. As the clock wound down, Ingham tried to punch the ball out. It went to ETSU’s Alesi Osorio, who headed it toward the goal.
The ball got past Ingham and was about to cross the line when Sarris jumped and headed it away just in time as the final second rolled off the clock.
Sarris said he didn’t even have time to think while making the play.
“It was just reaction,” he said. “I dropped right behind Nathan because I saw him going forward. It was definitely going in.”
In both of its tournament victories, both by one-goal margins, FGCU had to make one last save in the final seconds.
With the ball out of danger and the clock expired, there was nothing left for the Eagles to do other than celebrate. And celebrate they did, singing “Ole, Ole” loudly as they smiled and hugged each other.
“Right now I’m on top of the world,” Harrison said. “I knew from the get-go coming here that I wasn’t going to get in the NCAA tournament for the first three years. When we first started, we were losing all our games, but I knew the coach would put it together.
“This feels great. It feels amazing.”
Ingham made five saves, including two on serious scoring chances in the final 10 minutes, and was chosen as the tournament’s MVP. It’s likely to be his last action of the season as two-time all-conference selection Adam Glick is set to return from a knee injury for the NCAA tournament.
Playing his final game for the Bucs, Schoenfeld was selected to the all-tournament team. Also picked were ETSU’s David Geno and Coulter.
FGCU’s Ingham was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Harrison, Critsian Raudales, Josey Portillo, and Xavier Silva. Silva missed the final with a hamstring injury, but had a goal and an assist in a 2-1 semifinal win over Mercer.
“The way we competed, the way we fought, the way we played, I couldn’t be any prouder of this team, this group of guys,” Calabese said. “Florida Gulf Coast is a good team, very talented. I’m sure they’ll represent the A-Sun very well.”