HUNTSVILLE – Hollywood directors would struggle to create a more dramatic finish than Friday’s third-round playoff matchup between the Fort Payne Wildcats and Randolph Raiders did.
The No. 3-ranked Wildcats fell behind the No. 7-ranked Raiders on two occasions, hit two equalizing goals late in both halves, missed a golden opportunity to win in overtime and eventually powered through on penalty kicks to punch their ticket to Class 6A’s final four.
Friday’s battle at Randolph nearly saw the Wildcats strike first within the first two minutes of the match when a strong throw in from Fernando Ramirez took a high bounce in the 18-yard box and left Kenneth Toledo with a scoring chance less than 10 yards from the net. Toledo tried to boot the ball out of the air and missed before Randolph regained possession.
The defending 4A-5A state champion Raiders put a header on target two minutes later, but Fort Payne keeper Alex McPherson quickly secured the ball for his first of seven saves on the night.
In the ninth minute, Randolph junior Ian Kranja bobbed and weaved his way past a pair of Fort Payne defenders near the edge of the penalty box before putting a shot past a diving effort from McPherson for the game’s first goal.
The Wildcats put two shots on target and missed on a pair of set-play opportunities before a clutch defensive play from Fort Payne junior Norman Romero led to a game-tying goal.
While Randolph slowly tried to pass the ball back on their end of the field, Romero made a run for it. He cut past two Raiders to gain possession and quickly chipped the ball past a charging keeper to tie the game at 1-all with 7:26 left in the first half.
Just three minutes later, Romero stole the ball again in Randolph’s defensive zone and got tripped up near the penalty box, but no whistle was blown on the play.
Fort Payne rallied for one last scoring chance in the half with two minutes on the clock when Toledo had a strong run down the sideline before setting up an open shot for Aaron Chavez from around 15 yards away. Chavez tried to go low with his shot and Randolph’s keeper made the save to keep the score tied at 1-1 at the break.
Both teams went back and forth as game became even more physical through the first 20 minutes of the second half before Randolph powered through to take the lead again.
The Raiders earned a corner with 21 minutes left in regulation. Their initial kick led to an on-target header that was punched back towards the corner. Randolph then fired another cross into the box and this time it resulted in a goal as Raider senior Parker League scored on a header.
Fort Payne then desperately tried to create scoring chances and put three shots on target over the next five minutes to no avail.
The Wildcats then came through in the clutch once again when sophomore Yogan Hidrogo drove the ball towards the goal line from the right edge of the penalty box. Hidrogo then sent a sharp cross in front of the net before a sliding Toledo knocked the ball into the net for another game-tying goal that sent Fort Payne’s bench into a frenzy.
“They’re have-to-have goals,” Fort Payne coach Tom Shanklin said. “It’s the difference between being able to continue to play or not. We had a lot of opportunities that didn’t find the back of the net, so finishing is still something that we need to work on.”
The score remained tied at 2-all as the final seconds dwindled off the clock and forced overtime.
Just two minutes into the first overtime period, The Wildcats put the ball near Randolph’s net and drew a foul that gave the ‘Cats a penalty kick.
Hidrogo tried to tuck the ball under the cross bar, but his kick went high and spoiled a golden opportunity for the Wildcats.
Neither team scored in both 5-minute overtime periods, which forced a winner to be decided on penalty kicks.
Fort Payne sent Toledo to take their first shot. He made it count as he tucked the ball inside the left post.
Randolph’s first attempt saw McPherson dive to his left to make the save. The ball nearly rolled between McPherson’s legs before he clicked his cleats together to stop the ball from rolling across the goal line.
“Everybody was holding their breath, because we saw the ball disappear,” Shanklin said about the save. “Then when he stood up and had the ball, we all went ‘whew.’”
Hidrogo then redeemed himself with Fort Payne's next PK when he scored to the right side of the net. Randolph scored on their second attempt as well.
Fort Payne junior Renauldo Miguel’s PK attempt was then saved by Randolph’s keeper, but the referees ruled that the keeper stepped forward too early and awarded Miguel with a second chance. Miguel made that second chance count as he put the ball in the top-left shelf.
Randolph’s next PK sailed high and over the net, giving Fort Payne’s Aaron Chavez a chance to seal the comeback win if he could make a fourth straight PK for the Wildcats.
Chavez quickly put the ball in the back of the net and Fort Payne’s bench sprinted across the field towards the bleachers to celebrate with the Wildcat faithful who made the trip to Huntsville.
Fort Payne coach Michael Farmer said he challenged the team at the end of regulation and was proud of the way they responded.
“I told them when we went into overtime that ‘God is testing us. We’ve had every chance to win this game and we haven’t. So, can you go for 10 more minutes and lean on each other and support each other,’” Farmer said. “They just kept battling and they never gave up. Teams in the past we’ve had would go down and hang their head, but this team didn’t. I’m very, very proud of this team, but the challenge doesn’t stop here.”
The Wildcats will go from facing one defending state champion to another as they are slated for a rematch of last year’s Class 6A state championship game against Homewood. That match will kick off from John Hunt Park in Huntsville at 11 a.m. Friday.