MACON — The championship trophy was within touching distance for the Chestatee boys soccer team on Saturday night.
Northwest Whitfield had other ideas, however.
Leading 2-1 with less than four minutes to play in the Class 4A soccer title game, the War Eagles watched the Bruins bag two unanswered strikes in less than 1:30 to take a wild, 3-2 victory at Mercer's Five Star Stadium in Macon -- bringing to an end Chestatee's incredible postseason that saw the program march past the second round of the playoffs for the first time.
"Chances, chances, chances -- we couldn't connect on some opportunities that we absolutely needed and that came back to bite us," War Eagles coach Mike Herrin said. "You can't miss chances against good teams like that. Those guys are resilient and didn't quit. And when it came down to it the ball bounced their way."
With just 6:25 remaining it was a very different picture, as Uriel Rocha got the bounce -- more like a scuffed roll -- that looked like it would send the Class 4A trophy home to Gainesville, bundling a pass from Mateus Jennings over the line for a 2-1 lead.
But the Bruins were far from buried and responded with one strike each from Sergio Soria and Fabian Navarro to catch and surpass the War Eagles (19-3) in the waning moments.
"We watched them on film and knew they wouldn't give up; full credit to them, they're a great team," Herrin said. "But if we finish some of those earlier chances, who knows?"
After a slow start, Chestatee gained momentum midway through the first half and kept the Bruins (18-4-1) under consistent pressure throughout the second half. And despite going behind to a wonder-strike just after halftime, goals from Austin Manzo and Rocha -- who also set up Manzo's goal -- were just rewards for a War Eagles team playing for their school's first ever team state championship.
It was not to be, however, against a Northwest Whitfield team that used goals from three talented freshmen to break Chestatee hearts.
"For these guys to advance and to be here, especially after the hard schedule we played -- they showed they should be here," said Herrin, who initiated the War Eagle program in 2002. "This is the best team I've ever been associated with in all my years of coaching, and that's down to their personality, work ethic and determination. I'm so proud of them. They left it all out there tonight."
Chestatee struggled against Northwest Whitfield's concerted attack in the early going, and War Eagles' goalkeeper Steven Martinez came to the rescue twice over the opening 10 minutes.
The senior punched away a loose ball at the feet of an attacking Bruin and then tipped Navarro's long-range free kick off his own crossbar and away for a corner kick.
Pacheco then headed inches wide after a teasing cross from Dany Ramirez.
The near misses served to awaken the War Eagles attack, however, and Rocha and Manzo began to combine to effect, running at the Bruins defense and creating shooting angles.
Kevin Perez produced the first Chestatee shot of the contest with 16 minutes left in the first half, running on to a Manzo through ball only to slam his effort into the side-netting.
It was only the opening salvo from the War Eagles, however, and Jeyson Garcia pierced the Bruins defense on a lung-busting run from defense to rattle the Northwest crossbar with 12 minutes left in the half after a give-and-go with Manzo.
Chestatee then missed the best opportunity of the contest to take a first-half lead, as Yiovany Hernandez turned and knifed through the Bruin backline before teeing up Alex Salazar just 6 yards out. But the senior forward could not get a shot off before keeper Vicente Vaca smothered the ball inside the final minute.
It did not take long to end the stalemate after the restart, however, as Anthony Ramirez's 30-yard rocket pushed the Bruins in front with 35 minutes to play.
From there, it was all about chasing the game for Chestatee -- and the War Eagles stuck to the task. Yet tireless running and a gritty attitude could not alone find the back of the next.
First Rocha picked his way past the Bruins' defense -- only to roll a pass across the six yard box that eluded everyone and rolled out of bounds. Then Salazar missed another opportunity, failing to get a shot off after beating his defender to set up a one-on-one with Vaca.
The War Eagles refused to yield, however, and with 21:24 remaining, Chestatee finally found its breakthrough.
Fittingly it was Rocha and Manzo combining to unlock the Bruins defense, as Rocha's outside-of-the-foot cross fell perfectly to his teammate. Manzo made no mistake, burying his 10-yard effort past Vaca for 1-1.
Now in full control, Chestatee wore the look of inevitability, and Rocha and Jennings appeared to seal the crown for the War Eagles as Jennings drove into the penalty area to set up Rocha with an inch-perfect pass. The senior fell over under pressure but still managed to head the ball across the line while on the floor for a 2-1 lead with 6:25 remaining.
Unfortunately for Chestatee, an incredible game had two huge twists remaining, and Northwest Whitfield produced both.
With 3:30 remaining, Soria got loose in the War Eagles penalty area, received a cross and slammed it into the Chestatee net to knot the score at 2-2.
One minute and 29 seconds later, Northwest Whitfield found the winner.
This time the Bruins pounced on a Chestatee lapse, as Navarro dispossessed a War Eagles defender and stormed into the penalty area to beat Martinez one-on-one with 2:01 to play.
It was a back-breaker for Chestatee's historic campaign.
"We're losing five starters and 10 seniors overall, but we'll reload and go from there," Herrin said. "Hopefully it's just next man up mentality."