Cristian Barrientos had a method when it came to taking penalty kicks: go left with the ball every time.

But after missing a couple in practice, the Fort Payne junior opted for a change of direction during the most important PK attempt of his high school career.

“I decided to switch it up in the final, when it was most important, to try new things,” said Barrientos, who drilled the go-ahead penalty kick into the bottom-right corner of the net in the 58th minute, helping the top-ranked Wildcats capture the AHSAA Class 6A state championship, beating No. 4 Montgomery Academy 4-3 at Huntsville’s John Hunt Park last Saturday afternoon.

Barrientos scored all four of Fort Payne’s goals and was named championship match MVP for the Wildcats (26-2-2), who claimed the program’s third state title and first since 2015. 

“It’s always a dream to win the state and especially score all goals in the state final, but it’s all about effort and who wants it more,” Barrientos said. “This is what we prepared for.”

Fort Payne used its fitness and perseverance to endure the hot afternoon and wear down the Eagles (21-3-1) in the back-and-forth season finale. The Wildcats rallied from a 3-2 halftime deficit, keeping Montgomery Academy out of the net the rest of the way and finishing the 2023 season with an undefeated record against all in-state opponents. Additionally, Fort Payne surrendered only two goals across its five-match state playoff run — both goals were scored by Homewood in last Thursday’s 3-2 semifinal win.

In one thriller of a state championship match Saturday, Montgomery Academy struck first in the eighth minute on a Win Perry solo goal, before Barrientos knotted the match with a goal in the 16th minute off an assist by Chris Rocha Luna. 

Brewer Welch responded a minute later with a 28-yard free kick that sailed into the net. Then the Wildcats tied the match at 2 in the 23rd minute, courtesy of a Rocha assist to Barrientos.

The Eagles pulled ahead at halftime after Lucas Rizzo scored on a 22-yard free kick that rushed into the bottom-left corner of the net in the 31st minute. 

“We challenged (our players) at halftime to defend,” Wildcats co-head coach Michael Farmer said. “We couldn’t allow any more goals. (Rizzo) is an incredible player and our guys did a really good job of keeping him under control — I’m not going to say we stopped or shut him down, but we kept him under control.” 

Fort Payne senior Kai Stolp said minimizing mistakes and keeping a positive attitude were both key to the Wildcats’ second-half comeback.

“We have tendencies — because we have so much passion — to get on to somebody,” he said. “But we tried to bring people up and I think that’s what we did really well in the second half. The rest is history.”

Fort Payne brought the match level at 3 in the 47th minute when Barrientos scored his third goal of the match for a hat trick.

After Montgomery Academy was whistled for a foul in the penalty area in the 58th minute, Barrientos booted the go-ahead penalty kick and Fort Payne’s defense stood tall — as it has all season long — across the remaining 22 minutes of action. 

“Super-proud of them. They worked a whole lot of a season in order to be prepared for these times,” said Wildcats co-head coach Tom Shanklin of his boys. “Before we even start kicking the ball, we run 8 or 10 miles every shift, so we live for this moment because we wear teams down — clearly that’s what occurred today. It was swinging punches back and forth. Just a great matchup. 

“(Montgomery Academy) wasn’t able to keep up with the intensity, and obviously, these boys desired this so much. It means so much to them, seeing six seniors and sending them off right. Very proud of what they’ve done today.”

Fort Payne outshot the Eagles 19-18, with both sides tallying eight shots on goal. Barrientos finished with eight shots, while Joshua Guerra, Alexis Vega and George Guardia added three shots apiece. Wildcats goalkeeper Luis Barrientos  made four saves against eight on-target shots. 

“Our goalkeeper made four or five saves in the first 10-15 minutes that kept us in the game,” Farmer said. “Then finally our fitness took over in the second half. We start running in November and run until the season starts; it paid off today.” 

For Montgomery Academy, Rizzo took five shots, and Perry and Welch booted four each. Owen Johnson collected four saves on eight on-goal kicks. 

Fort Payne’s seniors who finished as state champions included: Stolp, Guerra, Robles, Luis Barrientos, Landon Bulux and Leo Reyes.

“We’ve been working all season for this,” Stolp said with a big smile across his face. “Ever since we were freshmen, we dreamed about being state champions. Putting in all that hard work is sensational. It’s magical. It really is a dream.” 

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