Gainesville goalkeeper Eduardo Bautista rose from laying on his back to a seated position in the middle of the box under the jumbotron in City Park Stadium to survey the home crowd. As he looked over at the faces of his peers, mentally preparing for a decisive penalty kick shootout against Cambridge in Tuesday night’s Class 6A state semifinal, Bautista found himself surprisingly calm.
“Ah,” he remembered thinking. “I might have to save the game right now.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Bautista saved three PK attempts, including two consecutive at the backend of the shootout that clinched the 3-2 victory for Gainesville and sent the Red Elephants to their second state title game in the last three years.
Gainesville will take on Dalton at a date and location still to be determined by the Georgia High School Association.
“I just wanted to win,” Bautista said. “This was our last game. You never want to leave home losing, especially in your last game. We wanted to go to state.”
Bautista saved Cambridge’s first shot attempt, and the Red Elephants scored on three of their first four attempts to take a 3-2 advantage. If Bautista saved one of the next two Bears kicks, Gainesville would need to make its final shot. If he saved both, it wouldn’t even come to that. If he saved neither, the teams would be forced into sudden death.
But Red Elephants coach Elie Viviant said he knew that would never be necessary.
“The ref asked me who was my sixth shooter, and I said don’t worry, we’re not going to get to the sixth shooter,” Viviant said. “My goalie is going to win it for me.”
Bautista dove right on both Cambridge attempts and punched both clear of the net to claim the win.
It was a dramatic finish that, from the beginning, it didn’t appear the Red Elephants would need.
Gainesville’s Pedro Santos scored on his first touch of the game to put the home team up, 1-0, 13 seconds in. Jorge Vasquez added another goal off a penalty kick five seconds before halftime to extend the lead to 2-0 at the intermission, but Viviant said he still had his misgivings about the quick start.
“It’s almost bad to score an early goal like that, because then they have to run after it to score and put the pressure on us,” he said. “We were never really able to play our game, because you’re already thinking in the back of your head, if we keep that, we win.”
Viviant’s fears were realized at the midpoint of the second half when Cambridge’s Omar Dhrif scored twice in 30 seconds — once on a bicycle kick that found the left side of the net in close and the other off a penalty kick of his own — equalizing the game with 20 minutes left to play.
“Now it’s a new game,” Viviant said. “20 minutes left. Overtime left. We have to keep our heads in moments like that. It’s OK.”
The two teams played to a stalemate over the remainder of regulation and extra time, setting up Bautista’s heroics to send Gainesville through to the championship round.
To finish the season off strong, the Red Elephants will have to accomplish what no team this year has done yet — beat Dalton. The Catamounts enter the championship round at a perfect 22-0 so far this year, but Viviant remained optimistic about his team’s chances.
“We have to play with heart,” he said. “We have to believe. And you never know. It’s just a soccer game.”