It may have taken 80 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of overtime, and eight penalty kicks, but after three hours of play the fourth-seeded Rye boys’ soccer team finally emerged victorious from their Class A Section quarterfinal with fifth-seeded Eastchester November 3 at Nugent Stadium.
Arber Xhema blasted a ball into the upper right corner of the net to give the Garnets a game-clinching 3-1 edge in penalty kicks. “I was speechless,” said Xhema, a junior. “I didn’t know what to say after I hit that, but I did want to keep our season alive for the seniors. We had to keep it going – we really have something special here this year.”
With the win, Rye (9-3-5) advanced to the Section semifinals November 5 where top-seeded Byram Hills awaits at home.
The score was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, and remained that way through two overtime periods. But goalkeeper Mike Linehan set the tone quickly for the Garnets in the penalty kick session. He made key saves under immense pressure in the first and third rounds of kicks, and forced Eastchester’s man to shoot wide in the second round. Brandon Robinson gave the Garnets a 1-0 lead after the Eagles went wide, and then sophomore Greg Stern – ice water running through his veins – put Rye up 2-0 on a cracker to the right side at the end of round three. Eastchester cut it to 2-1 with the first kick of the next round, but Xhema caused a joyous celebration immediately after.
“The more you think, the worse it is in those situations,” said Linehan, a senior and vocal leader on the field for Rye. “I couldn’t even watch when Arber went up to shoot – I just waited to hear the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net.”
Linehan, who made 12 saves in the game, blamed himself for allowing Eastchester to tie the game early in the second half. An Eagles’ corner kick sailed through his fingertips in the 47th minute, and was punched in for the score after slipping behind him. The goalkeeper was clearly furious, but more than made up for it later in the game.
Senior captain Tim Lonergan put it simply: “Without Mike, we don’t win.”
The same could be said for Lonergan, who along with sophomore Ian Robinson, played dynamic defense from afternoon to evening. Robinson flew all over the pitch to cause chaos for Eastchester’s offense, and Lonergan used his high soccer IQ and powerful throw-ins to Rye’s advantage.
“I really think there is no better defensive duo than Ian and Tim in all of New York State,” said Linehan. “There are no two better than them – I’ll put my name behind that statement. I’m so proud of the guys.”
Lonergan’s superior throw-in ability gave the Garnets a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute. He bombed it towards Eastchester’s goal, where Xhema was waiting to head it in. Rye had multiple chances to defeat the Eagles late in regulation, but were stymied at each turn by miscues or outstanding saves.
Now it’s on to Byram Hills for the Garnets, who are 1-0-1 against their rivals this season. Rye’s victory over the Bobcats in October spurred them to a the League III-B championship, but they’re going to have to do it again – this time on the road – if they want a shot at the Class A Section title.
“It’s going to be an epic matchup,” said Xhema.