Fans will be talking about Thursday's Centennial-Atholton boys soccer game for years to come, and about whether two high school soccer teams ever were so evenly matched.
Centennial nipped Atholton, 4-3, in an overtime shootout to win the Region 3, Class 3A championship. But it took 80 minutes of regulation play, 20 minutes of sudden-death overtime and a 20-minute shootout to decide the winner.
The story really began Oct. 22 at Atholton when the two teams played 100 minutes of knockdown soccer and went away with a 3-3 draw. That game included 20 minutes of sudden-death overtime.
The indefatigable matchup continued Thursday at Centennial where it seemed that nothing would provide a winner. In both games, Centennial scored a late goal to tie it.
Rehan Gill's header off Eric Tischer's corner kick rattled the net with just 30 seconds left in regulation play for Gill's second goal of the game.
A draw was impossible since only one of the teams is allowed to advance to the state semifinal next Saturday.
So each team's 11 players on the field lined up to shoot a penalty kick in hopes of deciding a victor. The team converting the most shots would win.
But after 10 players on each team had kicked, the teams were still tied. Each had missed twice.
An orange sky was shrinking behind the goal, where the penalty shots were being taken, and darkness had nearly fallen over the unlighted field when Atholton missed on its 11th attempt. If Centennial made its next shot, it would be the champion.
Cullen Meade -- Centennial's defensive stalwart, its sweeper who has played so well all season -- stepped to the penalty line. And with the weight of the county soccer world on his shoulders he kicked a clean, precise shot into the upper right corner of the net and sparking pandemonium in the middle of the field among Centennial players and fans.
They celebrated as though they had just won a state championship. And they might have. The Eagles will surely be the favorite in the 3A class when semifinal action resumes Saturday.
"The game had all the elements you could want in a game of soccer," Atholton coach Reg Hahne said. "It was very equal. You couldhave tossed a coin. I thought we had it won."
Coaching strategy on each side attempted to carve out an advantage.
Centennial wantedto play the ball wide offensively and avoid the middle, where Atholton's premier defensive player, 6-foot-1, 175-pound James Waddy patrolled his turf like a jail warden.
Defensively, the Eagles wanted tokeep Atholton's premier scoring threats, David Kelley and Tony Dedmond, from getting behind their defenders. Unlike the first game, when Centennial marked both Dedmond and Kelley, this time that duo went unmarked.
"Marking them hurt us in the first game," Centennial coachBill Stara said. Dedmond burned the Eagles badly in that game by slipping behind the defense and scoring off a long free kick.
Atholton's defensive strategy was to mark leading Eagles scorer Josh Baer, whose breakaway speed made it almost mandatory he be marked. Brian Yankle did a praiseworthy job against Baer, who nevertheless managed to score Centennial's first goal on a header off a throw-in from Allen Alejandro. All three Centennial goals were scored off throw-ins or corner kicks.
"When you mark Baer, you also have to mark the player who passes him the ball, which was Rehan Gill," Hahne said. Waddy marked Gill, who repeatedly passed wide to Eric Tischer, who then tried to advance the ball to the corner and to good scoring position. Atholton usually was forced to kick the ball out of bounds, allowing Centennial time to set up a play.
Centennial had the unbelievable totalsof 30 throw-ins, 10 corner kicks and 20 shots. In the first half alone, the Eagles had 19 throw-ins.
"They won the game on set plays (corners and throw-ins)," Hahne said. "But we did shut that down a lotin the second half."
Hahne made the surprising move of taking outstarting goalie Josh Seidman, who had made 10 saves, and replacing him just before the shootout with offensive star David Kelley.
"Kelley had played four years of keeper when he was younger, and I had a lot of faith in him," Hahne said. "Josh knew about it beforehand."
Kelley did a decent job, making two saves during the shootout and almost getting a third. But he missed one he might have made.
Why did Centennial always seem able to rally or do what it had to do to winthis year?
"Tradition. Confidence. A great coach -- the best I'veever played for," Meade said.
"I was impressed with the way we came back for that last goal," Stara said. "That took heart, poise and playing within the system."
Centennial (12-0-2) is top-ranked by The Sun in the Baltimore area. Atholton (7-5-2) was ranked only No. 12. But the Raiders, Class 2A state champs a year ago, were probably the best 7-5-2 team in the history of the state. They played a rugged schedule.