By Five Boro Sports
With Belson Stadium erupting all around him and 12 yards separating the St. John’s men’s soccer team from a berth in the College Cup, a number of thoughts were racing through Nelson Becerra’s head.
With the pressure mounting, the junior midfielder motioned for quiet. Moments later, a hush enveloped the facility. Becerra stepped up to take the decisive penalty kick in overtime and did what he has done best throughout the season.
Becerra pushed his spot kick to the right of Indiana goalkeeper Chay Cain, lifting the third-seeded Red Storm to a stunning 3-2 overtime win against the sixth-seeded Hoosiers. It capped a remarkable comeback that saw the Johnnies erase a two-goal deficit in the final eight minutes of regulation in front of 2,012 frigged fans.
“It was a great feeling,” Becerra said. “I never felt like that before in my life. I just kept running, looking for people to celebrate [with].”
St. John’s (19-2-3) will meet second-seeded Maryland in the second semifinal Friday at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. The Terrapins defeated Creighton 1-0 Saturday afternoon. Top-seeded Wake Forest and No. 13 North Carolina will meet in the first semifinal.
“Nelson always wants to take penalty kicks,” St. John’s Coach Dave Masur said. “We rotated it around a little bit, but there wasn’t anyone else who wanted it with the kind of confidence you needed in that situation. … It was a great moment and a big moment and he came through fantastic for the team.”
Becerra’s penalty kick came after a sequence that saw Ryan Soroka’s shot stopped by Cain, who made an acrobatic save. The rebound bounced to freshman Walter Hines, who shot at the open net only to have Indiana defender Ofari Sarkodie desperately handle the ball on the line.
Referee Alex Prus pointed to the spot and sent off Sarkodie, who put Indiana (14-7-3) in front with his first goal of the season in the 36th minute. Becerra immediately grabbed the ball, ending any possible debate over who would take the penalty kick.
“Before I scored I was real nervous, but it goes away right before you hit it,” Becerra said. “It goes away and like Coach said, I always like to step up and take the PK. I feel like I was ready to take it. I feel like I’m always ready. That’s why I practice every day.”
Becerra’s goal, his team-leading eighth of the year and third from the penalty spot, capped a remarkable rally for the Red Storm, who fell behind 2-0 when Eric Alexander scored his third of the season for Indiana in the 72nd minute.
Despite the insurance goal, Indiana Coach Mike Freitag was concerned.
“There was a point in the game when we scored our second goal, I saw my guys, especially the guys on the bench, celebrating too much,” he said. “I just knew what we were up against.”
In the final 10 minutes, Masur made three tactical changes, all of which paid dividends. He pushed 6-foot-3 Swedish defender Joel Gustafsson up front and brought Walter Hines and Ale Ivo off the bench for pace.
Gustafsson knocked in a Becerra cross at the far post in the 82nd minute to cut the Red Storm’s deficit in half. It was the first goal Indiana conceded in the NCAA tournament.
“It was a great lift when we got the goal from Joel, great effort in sticking with it and some unbelievable perseverance, a little bit of energy and guts and making some decisions there at the end to keep the game going for us,” Masur said. “It’s just an unbelievable victory for all the guys on the team. I’m very proud of them.”
It was a goal that gave St. John’s the belief that it could find a way to tie the game.
“I think it gave us a really good lift when Joel came [up top],” Sverre Wegge Gundhus said. “It really helped us that Joel came up and won the first balls so we could pick up the second balls. It was a relief.”
Gundhus equalized with 2:03 left in regulation with his third goal of the NCAA tournament. Soroka played the ball to Hines, who had space to run after Indiana defender Kevin Alston fell. Hines put a cross in front of the goal that was deflected by Cain and the Norwegian forward tapped in the tying goal.
Ivo, who started 16 of 24 games this year, also made a massive difference, using his fresh legs to dart through the Hoosiers’ suddenly shaken backline.
“It was 10 minutes left and it was a sprint everywhere, 10 minutes of sprinting, 10 minutes of running all out,” the sophomore midfielder said. “It was on the line, everything we worked for this season, all the hours we’ve been with Coach, meeting, training, practicing since the summer, spring. Everything was on the line.”
Ivo helped set up the dramatic golden goal, playing Soroka through on goal. After Becerra scored, the midfielder was chased by teammates along the sideline in a wild celebration. Ivo, though, was overcome with emotion, holding his head in his hands kneeling on the turf.
“It’s a spot I’ve never been to in my life, my career,” Ivo said. “It can be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, it can never happen again, nobody knows that. … It’s almost overwhelming.”