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Wildcats advance to East final with PK win

SOUTHERN PINES | The shot clanged off the goalpost, and New Hanover's soccer team sprinted onto the field to pile on top of goalkeeper Max Johnson.

In a penalty-kick shootout at Pinecrest, Johnson came off the bench for a critical save and pushed the Wildcats (16-6-2) to an NCHSAA 4A East regional final with a 1-1 (4-3) penalty kick win against the Patriots (16-3-3).

Johnson didn't start Saturday or play at all before the shootout. But when neither team could gain separation, Johnson knew he was likely to come in. 

He's New Hanover's penalty-kick specialist goalkeeper. New Han-over coach T.J. Rennie said Johnson even saves his shots during practice. So when the second overtime period began, Johnson started warming up.

"I was getting my mind ready to go," Johnson said. "When the second overtime started, I knew I had to get ready."

Sure enough, Rennie didn't hesitate to turn to Johnson, a sophomore, despite the pressure of a season-deciding shootout.

Johnson missed the first three Pinecrest shots, but after New Hanover's third attempt went wide, Johnson had to step up. When Pinecrest's Hayden Little stepped up for the fourth shot, Johnson's instincts kicked in.

"Right when he came up to the ball I knew exactly where he was going," Johnson said.

Johnson dove right and blocked Little's shot to tie the shootout. New Hanover didn't miss another shot and Pinecrest's fifth shot went off the bar to end the game. 

"He's so good at it," Rennie said. "We had all the confidence in the world, even towards the end of overtime, I'm happy to go to penalties because Max will make a save to win the game."

New Hanover almost won in regulation. A 67th minute cross from Logan Chaucer found Brian Gunnell for a goal that put New Hanover on top. But Pinecrest answered in the 77th minute to force overtime.

"Brian had a great goal," Rennie said. "I thought that would be good enough."

The win continued a run of close playoff victories for New Hanover. The Wildcats won two playoff games 1-0 to get to Pinecrest, and Johnson said they're used to tight situations.

"We've had games where we've been down 0-1 and scored two goals in the last two minutes to win," Johnson said. "We know that we have the talent to come back and win important games."

Rennie credited the Wildcat defense, which has surrendered only two goals in its past 10 games.

"If you don't give up goals, you can find ways at the end of games to win," Rennie said. "And we've got great leadership. We've got 10 seniors and they get the guys focused." 

With the win, New Hanover advances to play at Green Hope in the 4A East regional final either Tuesday or Wednesday. Green Hope is the defending state champion.

"Honestly, they should be much better than us," Rennie said. "Hopefully we can get lucky."


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