Pelham wins OT thriller against Chelsea to advance in postseason

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

CHELSEA – With a minute remaining in overtime of a scoreless game between the Pelham Panthers and Chelsea Hornets on Tuesday, April 30, it looked as if we were headed to a second overtime and possibly even penalty kicks to determine which of the rivals would advance to the quarterfinals of the playoffs, but then something happened to change that fortune.

After several missed opportunities throughout the game, Pelham looked to be in the same situation it had been in the previous two losses to Chelsea in the regular season—a 2-1 loss in PKs and a 1-0 loss in the final minutes—where the Hornets capitalized on missed chances by the Panthers.

Chelsea put a torrid run at goals throughout the second period, and even early in overtime, and it looked as if the same outcome as the previous two games might be on the horizon, but Eber Serrano had other ideas.

Serrano, who also scored one of two goals in Pelham’s first-round win, received a pass with a minute to go in overtime just outside the top left corner of the box.

After one quick dribble to his dominant foot, Serrano fired a shot directly at Chelsea goalkeeper Joseph Gage. As the ball traveled through the air, all of Pelham’s heartbreak throughout the season, including seven one-goal losses to ranked teams and two to the Hornets, went with it.

The ball eventually reached Gage, and with the pace it was carrying, bounced just a few inches in front of him, deflected off his hands and rolled up over his shoulder before slowly trickling the rest of the way into the net sending the Pelham players into a full on sprint to the fence where they embraced in hugs and celebration thanks to Serrano’s overtime game-winner for a 1-0 victory.

With the win, Pelham not only erased its heartbreaking losses in the regular season to the Hornets, but kept its season alive by advancing to take on Benjamin Russell in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs at home on Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m.

On a night where fans filled the bleachers, and lined the fence from one end of the field to the other, playoff soccer was in the air, and the two teams matched the atmosphere in the early going.

While the Hornets looked to be conserving energy for their forwards, almost foreseeing a close game late, the Panthers came out ready to attack feeling as if they were the better team on the wrong end of losses in the first two matchups.

Knowing they needed to take chances and capitalize this time around, the Panthers controlled the ball for the majority of the first half.

Each team earned a free kick in the first 13 minutes of play, but for the final 27 minutes of the period, it was all Pelham.

The Panthers got free kicks and several great opportunities at goals, but all were rather lengthy chances and never found the back of the net.

Chelsea got a few opportunities on free kicks, but never controlled the ball for any lengthy period of time, as offensive possessions were tough to come by.

Defensively, however, the Hornets were playing lights out having to stop several aggressive attacks from the Panthers, while Gage was also impossible to break in net.

Still tied 0-0 heading to the second half, Chelsea felt it was time to start going at everything with all its energy, and it showed with the way the Hornets attacked offensively.

In the first eight minutes of the period, Chelsea earned two free kicks, the second of which almost ended in a header from Lando Nichols, but the ball sailed just a foot or two wide right.

That was followed quickly by a great look from Pelham’s Irvin Rodriguez. After Gage got out of position making a great save, Rodriguez grabbed the rebound and tried to position himself before firing on an open net, but two Hornets defenders created a wall and blocked the shot to stop a great chance for the Panthers.

All of a sudden, thanks to Chelsea’s offense turning up the pressure, we had an intense game with a sense of urgency from both teams.

With 29:20 left in the game, the Panthers got another great look in basically a two-on-one situation, but Gage came out to make an incredible save on the ball just before it was kicked to keep the game scoreless.

The Hornets then answered with three more great opportunities in a row. First it was Nichols again after getting inside the box, but the next two were equally as good if not better.

Following a free kick, Andrew Messier found the ball right in front of a net. After being batted around a bit, the ball was kicked and ricocheted away just to the left after a save from Pelham’s David Clinton.

That was followed three minutes later by a free kick from Cooper Neal. He was close to 40 yards away on the shot, but sent a hard roller quickly toward the right post from dead in the center of the field. The ball rolled an inch to the right of the post and was so close the Chelsea fans erupted with cheers thinking he had made the shot.

The game, however, remained in a 0-0 stalemate with 9:50 to play.

In the final nine minutes, each team got a couple more great opportunities.

Chelsea took a great shot with 7:22 that was deflected by a defender and almost went in but eventually rolled out of play.

Then, over the final three minutes of the game, Pelham came extremely close to winning it. With 2:40 remaining, Rodriguez got by the defense and was chasing after a ball in the box, but Gage came out and ripped the ball off the grass just before he got to what would have been a game-winning goal.

Exactly two minutes later, in the final 40 seconds, Greg Blue found himself close to 35 yards out looking to take a chance. He reared back and fired possibly the best shot of the night on goal. It looked perfect the entire way there, but slid just high and hit the cross bar preventing the go-ahead goal and forcing overtime with a 0-0 tie to end regulation.

Early in overtime, it was Chelsea that got the first great look on a shot from the far right side of the box, but the shot missed just wide left.

That opportunity ended up being the final one of the season for the Hornets, as Pelham took the ball back up field where Serrano eventually got the ball for the game-winner to end the thrilling contest.