By Steven Watkins
For the Forsyth County News
Not for the first time this year, South Forsyth goalkeeper Aarnav Sandhu bounced in a loose crouch within the net and waited to make what could be the deciding save of Wednesday night’s second-round playoff matchup at Norcross High School.
His opponent was Norcross captain Gibou George, who less than two hours prior had used the first shot of the evening by either team to grab an early 1-0 lead for the second-ranked Blue Devils on a nifty header that snuck its way by a lunging Sandhu.
George’s goal came just under 15 minutes of a hotly contested and defensive first-half. The top-10-ranked opponents exchanged numerous goal kicks early, probing and prodding their opposing defenses while battling for possession throughout.
Norcross spent the remaining first half minutes like a team not necessarily expectant of victory, but one confidently capable of creating it, pressuring a fading South back line and almost effortlessly maintaining control of an opponent stubbornly staying alive.
Not for the first time, the War Eagles entered halftime fixated on the truth that first-half leads, while welcome, are only as effective as the performances that follow them.
65 regulation minutes, one South goal, two periods of overtime and seven penalty kicks later, Sandhu and George each stood a dangerously short distance apart and waited on the whistle that would commence the most significant rematch of the season.
George made his approach, Sandhu lunged, and not for the first time, the South keeper followed the game-winning save by leaping to his feet and sprinting toward an elated mass of black jerseys.
“I know we’re good at PKs, it’s just choose a side and dive, hopefully the right way,” Sandhu said. “I trust all of them to score in PKs, so I know if we go (there) we’re good.”
Sandhu’s faith in his team’s ability to win in PK’s looked every bit justified.
The War Eagles finished a resurgent second half and the ensuing overtimes by netting three out of their four penalty kicks.
Perhaps more importantly, three times out of four, their goal keeper batted away opposing attempts.
“We’ve always got a chance when you’ve got a good goal keeper,” South head coach Tom Braun said. “Our shooters are very, very good. They’re calm and confident. When we get to that point we know we always have a very good chance to win the ballgame.”
Regardless of whatever mysterious and undeniably effective halftime methods the War Eagles have employed thus far this year, it was captain Walker Haymond’s goal at seven minutes into the second half that began the momentum change that favored the newly-invigorated War Eagles for the remainder of the night. After two scoreless extra time periods, the game entered penalty kicks tied at 1-1.
“Coach told us at halftime that we needed to get the ball out wide and try to serve early,” Haymond said. “Chris Mendelson got it out wide and I just knew he was going to try to cross it in. I was just lucky to put it into the back of the net.”
Braun’s squad rode newly found, second-half momentum all the way to a final penalty kick, pushing Norcross into a pair of grueling overtimes and a season-ending session of penalty kicks, which the War Eagles won 3-1.
“We knew we’ve been top 10 all year,” Haymond said. “We knew we belonged on this field with them and we were happy to get a win.”
South (16-3-1) is set to face No. 1-seeded Hillgrove on the road on Saturday in the state quarterfinals.