AMHERST — When the time comes to list the area’s all-time most thrilling soccer matches, Monday’s classic between Amherst and Strongsville will show up near the top.
In an electrifying finish, the Comets’ Josh Birkline scored with four seconds left in the second sudden-death overtime period to nip Strongsville, 2-1. The winner came on a nearly perfect left-to-right crossing pass from Connor Klekota. The same combo teamed up for Amherst’s first goal in the 35th minute.
Amherst players and fans erupted when Birkline’s goal put an end to the action in the 115th minute of the Division I district semifinal at Amherst Junior High. It came just seconds before the match would have, by rule, gone to a shootout. It was the second 2-1 loss to Amherst this season for Strongsville (7-8-3). The Comets put up a 2-1 win at Strongsville on Sept. 17.
Birkline had just two goals for the season when the Comets hosted Elyria in a sectional final last week. He scored three goals against the Pioneers and now has five in his last two games.
“We had chance after chance the whole game,” Birkline said. “But I was talking to Connor Klekota and Maximo (Meggitt) at halftime, and we just knew we were going to make the play, no matter what. We knew we were going to win.”
Klekota said he knew victory was near when he took control of the ball deep in the Mustangs zone with the clock flashing down the final seconds.
“Actually, all I heard was my mom yelling at me to get back on defense, my dad yelling at me down in the corner and I was totally out of gas,” Klekota said. “But I saw that ball and I knew something was gonna happen. I saw Josh running and I thought, ‘Oh, this is simple. We did it once, we can do it again. Here comes the district finals.’”
Birkline also took a crossing pass from Klekota to score Amherst’s first goal, which remained unanswered until the 70th minute. It was then that Mustangs forward Jared Abston took possession of a turnover deep in the Amherst end and moved in to score the equalizer.
About his first goal, Birkline said: “I checked back, got the ball and played it to Connor. We’ve hooked up all season, whether it be him to me or me to him. We just know where each other are the whole time. He knew where I was going and he played it.”
Second-seeded Amherst (15-2-1) advances to a district final for only the third time in the history of the program. Most recently, the Comets defeated Avon Lake 3-2 for the district championship in 2008. They were eliminated by North Royalton in a regional semifinal.
Their opponent Thursday will be top-seeded Avon, which downed third-seeded Avon Lake on Monday night in another district semifinal. The site and time for Thursday’s match will be announced.
Meggitt, the Amherst goalkeeper, got the shutout on his 18th birthday. It was the Comets’ ninth of the season.
“I told ‘Birk’ at halftime, ‘If I ever needed you, right now is the time,’” Meggitt said. “This is special. We’re a very special team and I would never expect anything less from us. I mean, there’s four seconds left — four seconds left — and he’s (Birkline) working his butt off to get that goal.”
The Comets had several chances to score in the second half and the two overtime periods. Andrew Souders forced Mustangs keeper Matt Stephano to make a diving save in the 54th minute and Brad Mieden put a shot right on the Strongsville net in the 73rd minute. Souders was wide with a header in the 82nd minute and Connor Klekota, taking a corner kick from his brother Garrett, missed a header wide right five minutes later.
Connor Klekota hooked a hard shot on frame that put Stephano to work in the 94th minute, Mark Matos missed high with a hard shot in the 100th minute and Eric Armstrong forced Stephano to make a tough save two minutes later. The Comets also bounced a shot off the Strongsville crossbar after a Garrett Klekota corner in the 104th minute.
“Our goal all year long has been to advance as far as we could in the playoffs,” Amherst coach Brett Thompson said. “We have the team for it, but I never expected to do it this way. We had chance after chance and we built attack after attack, and we just couldn’t finish. But I think this was a fair result. They’re a quality team and we’re a quality team and sometimes it just comes down to one play.”
Amherst 2, Strongsville 1 (OT)
- GOALS: (S) Jared Abston (70th). (A) Josh Birkline 2 (35th, 115th).
- ASSISTS: (A) Connor Klekota 2.
- SHOTS: Strongsville 7, Amherst 17.
- SHOTS ON FRAME: Strongsville 3, Amherst 10.
- SAVES: (S) Matt Stephano 8. (A) Maximo Meggitt 3.
- CORNER KICKS: Strongsville 2, Amherst 3.
- GOAL KICKS: Strongsville 15, Amherst 3.
- OFFSIDE: None.
- HANDBALLS: None.
- OTHER INFRACTIONS: Sttrpmgsvo;;e 13. Amherst 8.
- YELLOW CARDS: (A) Eric Armonstrong (12th), Bench (102nd).
- HALFTIME: Amherst, 1-0.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or email@example.com.