Leads aren't safe and drama is the default setting when Great Crossing and Frankfort collide on the boys' soccer pitch.
GC walked away Thursday night a 3-2 winner and 41st District champion for the second straight season, but not before two Panther goals and a potential equalizer that clanged off the crossbar, all in the final 12 minutes of regulation.
“I was pretty anxious just because they scored twice on my side, but I mean, I knew we had it,” said senior back Doug Gindling, who was named to the all-tournament team. “I think it's just they don't give up, and they're very physical the whole game, so you have to be on your toes the whole time.”
Gindling's fellow all-tourney selections Austin Welch, Preston Welch and Aiden Bryan scored the goals that were narrowly enough to win it in regulation at home.
That was a welcome change for GC from its penalty kick tiebreaker triumphs at Frankfort in both last year's final and the regular-season rematch one week ago.
“I wasn't expecting (them to score) two. It was really nerve-racking,” Bryan said. “They're really physical, really talented. They're a great group of guys. It's always a very physical game.”
When Frankfort didn't mount any major threats in the few minutes that followed Bryan's blast with 32:32 left, even GC coach Nick Maxwell admitted he and his assistants let off the accelerator just a tad.
“Our thought was hey, we can now get some of our starters out and give them a little extra breather,” Maxwell said. “That's one of the hardest things when you think that match is won, you think it's over and all of a sudden it's not. So mentally being able to switch that back on, especially if you've been on the bench 10 to 12 minutes, having to come back on, it definitely is tough to get that rolling.”
But from the all's-well-that-ends-well department, with its fifth consecutive victory, Great Crossing (7-2-1) earned a home game in the quarterfinals of the 11th Region tournament against a rival district's runner-up – either Frederick Douglass, Lafayette or Madison Central.
That draw will be held Friday, with the match at a time to be announced either Saturday or Monday.
Tournament MVP Austin Welch, who piled up a hat trick in Tuesday's semifinal win over Franklin County, got the title game off on the right foot.
His interception, turn and fire from 25 yards provided a strike that took the Warhawks only two minutes and 33 seconds.
“Austin and Preston coming onto the team, and Zach (Hamner) our captain really keeping us together,” Gindling, one of the few returning starters, said of the evolution that transformed a less experienced Warhawk club into champions once again. “Just learning to play as a team during this season really helped us.”
No other goals were scored in the half, although GC had an apparent one by Brayden Ward waved off due to an offside call. Frankfort goalkeeper Sam Yocum made numerous diving stops to keep his side afloat.
Senior Austin Welch's service up the middle set up his sophomore sibling for the tally that made it 2-0 with 37:54 remaining.
Bryan, a junior, then picked a perfect spot for his first career varsity goal.
“I think they crossed it in,” he said. “It was just up in the air, and I chested it down, brought it in, and just hit it hoping for a goal.”
Anyone who's watched this series in its brief history might have known it wasn't over.
Frankfort (11-3) ramped up its pressure and forced GC keeper Connor Dias into a busy stretch at his end of the wet turf. That persistence paid off with a finish by Preston Barber at the 11:21 mark.
Not even two minutes later, Ethan Vermillion's run down the right side and centering pass to Adam Gritton produced the rip that made it a one-goal game.
Vermillion's rocket from 25 years found the metal over Dias' head with three minutes left. GC then survived a free kick that sailed long before its defense calmly played out the remaining time.
“The first one could have been offside, I don't know. I was watching the ball,” Maxwell said. “The second one bounced around, similar situation. The surface was slick, but we still have to tale care of those. Then Vermillion's ball off the crossbar easily could have tied it up, and we're in a what-the-heck situation.”
Maxwell was thrilled for the two Warhawks who basked in rare individual recognition.
After scoring his only goal of the season in the previous match with Frankfort, Gindling was the glue of the defense along with fellow seniors Hamner and Trey Dice.
“Doug is probably the quietest guy out here. He might say five words each training session,' Maxwell said. “I don't know if you watch Phineas and Ferb with your kids. He's Ferb. He has one line, and then that's it. Nothing else.
“He's kind of that unsung hero. He doesn't get any credit for the work he does. He just comes out and does it. He's a midfielder that we converted to outside back years ago. His ability to get that first touch, his control and his vision gives him a unique perspective, and it's really nice to have that ability out there.”
Bryan, a midfielder, was sidelined with an injury last time GC battled Frankfort.
“What Aiden does so well is he connects the dots,” Maxwell said, “He's one of the engines that makes everything go. He's not on the stat sheet very often, but without him playing that way, this system falls apart.”
There's recent history with two of the three potential region opponents. Great Crossing eliminated Frederick Douglass in last year's quarterfinals and absorbed one of its two losses this season against Madison Central on Oct. 3.