It has been said that penalty kicks to decide a soccer championship can provide some of the most exciting moments in sports.
"It's exciting if you win and it's heartbreaking if you lose," WVU Tech interim men's soccer coach Oliver Hewitt-Fisher said.
Hewitt-Fisher and the Golden Bears got to taste the sweeter end of that deal.
After tying the game late in regulation and surviving two overtimes, Tech got a sudden death PK from Santiago Cruz to defeat rival Rio Grande 1-1 (5-4 penalty kicks) for the River States Conference tournament championship Saturday in Beckley.
The win preserved NAIA No. 9 Tech's unbeaten season and clinched the league's automatic berth into the NAIA national tournament. The Golden Bears (18-0-1) will serve as hosts for the first round, with a pair of at-large teams playing Friday and the winner facing Tech on Saturday.
The ending was a fitting one between the league's fiercest rivals. Both teams were already assured a spot in the nationals, but that was of no consolation.
It was the second time this season Tech and Rio Grande needed OT. The Golden Bears took a 1-0 win in Beckley on Oct. 17 on Fletcher Caponecchia's goal in the second overtime.
The 10th-ranked RedStorm struck first in this one when Omar Walcott scored from the back left corner of the box at the 23:55 mark. Tech was unable to convert on several shots on goal until Antonio Fernandez Castano found the ball within five feet of the goal and punched it in to tie the game at 1-1 in the 81st minute.
"It was very stressful, obviously," said Hewitt-Fisher, the league's Coach of the Year. "They got an early goal in the first half and I thought we kind of came back into the game, but in the second half it felt like it was getting away from us a little bit. Luckily we got that equalizer, and once we did I thought we dominated both overtimes."
After two extra sessions settled nothing, it was time for penalty kicks. Both teams converted on the first three tries before things got interesting.
Rodrigo Basso's shot hit the crossbar but came down inside the goal to give the RedStorm a 4-3 advantage. Tech's Ruben Martin Macias came up and also hit the crossbar, but it was too high and had too much steam, bounding high and over the goal.
The RedStorm needed one more successful kick to secure the win, but Walcott's shot was stopped by Tech keeper Jorge Martinez to give the Golden Bears a chance.
Rolando Sanchez, who received his award as the RSC Player of the Year after the game, hit his shot to extend the night for one more minute.
Martinez stepped up again, stopping Connor Paine's kick to force Rio into a do-or-die situation. Tech killed the RedStorm off when Cruz went left on his shot and keeper Richard Dearle guessed the other way, setting off a wild celebration for the Golden Bears.
"Honestly, there's not much pressure on the keeper. If it goes in, no one expects anything of him," Hewitt-Fisher said of Martinez's pivotal saves. "So there's more pressure on their striker, and it looked like the pressure got to their striker a little bit."
Tech had a 9-2 shots-on-goal advantage, and outshot Rio Grande 18-5 overall. Dearle made seven saves for the RedStorm (15-4).
The NAIA national tournament selection show will be Monday at 1 p.m. First-round winners will move on to Irvine, Calif., starting Dec. 2.
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