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LACEY TWP. -- The emotion of Saturday's NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship game between Mainland and Lacey was so intense, it did not take until the end of the 100 minutes of play plus the penalty kick shootout for that emotion to come pouring out of the players.

That rollercoaster was not part of the blueprint for Lacey, but it made the dramatic ending all the better once it finally came.

Sophomore goalkeeper Lorynn Leporino gave up a controversial goal that tied the game in the 74th minute, but stepped up with two saves during the penalty kick shootout as the third-seeded Lions prevailed in an hard-fought, draining sectional championship game against the fifth-seeded Mustangs.

Saturday's championship performance secured Lacey its first sectional championship since 2003.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

"I'm so proud of them," Lacey coach Jack Mahar said. "They have been that way since July 8, the day we started. There was just a new mindset. Every year, we have been trying to get that culture and getting closer every year and this team just has it.

"We're not an unknown anymore. I don't think there are a lot of teams that want to play us."

No player felt the weight of the final 26 minutes of action, plus the shootout, more than Leporino, who was at the center of Mainland's game-tying goal with 6:11 remaining and again became the focal point of the outcome once the championship came down to the round of penalty kicks.

"I was still really emotional when the game went to penalty kicks because we all thought we should have won already," Leporino said. "You could just feel it with every shot how much pressure there was and it just made what happened even more intense.

"I think it helped that I know I am good at stopping penalty kicks so once it was time to got into the goal and focus on each shot, I was able to calm down and focus on the job I had to do for my team."

"Lorynn has been that way all year," Mahar said. "She is a gamer. We practice those penalty kicks after every practice and she has saved more than we made so I was more worried about not making them. I'm thinking, 'Okay, she is going to save at least one of them.' She came up huge."

With Lacey a little more than six minutes from winning the championship in regulation, Mainland earned a free kick near midfield that led to the game-altering sequence. Sydney Kaas head-flicked the initial service toward the goal and Camryn Dirkes followed up with a header on frame. Leporino parried it straight up above her head to gain control and secured it along the end-line for what appeared to be a save.

After several seconds, as Leporino prepared to punt, the center official blew his whistle and signaled a goal was scored after the sideline official relayed to him that the ball crossed the line while Leporino was controlling it.

"I was not a goal," Leporino said. "My feet were on the line and when I caught the ball, it was literally right over my head. I didn't have to reach back, I didn't have to move, I just caught the ball, held it in front of me, checked my feet and I was good. When they blew the whistle and said it was a goal, I couldn't believe it."

Leporino acknowledged that the call affected her for the rest of the game, but the sophomore goalkeeper did not let that anguish lower her guard in goal.

"It definitely affected me for a while but my teammates did an amazing job of picking me up and encouraging me to stay in the game for us," Leporino said. "You have to have your teammates' backs in a game like this and they didn't give up on me and I definitely wanted to be there for them in the shootout."

Up until Mainland's equalizer, the Mustangs dominated the second half, but Lacey bounced back by creating the bulk of the chances throughout the two overtime periods.

In the shootout, Lacey fell behind twice but got back in it with saves by Leporino on the second and fourth attempts by Mainland. Freshman Reece Paget and senior Katie Patterson converted Lacey's second and fourth attempts, respectively, and following Leporino's second save, sophomore Marley Besser connected to give Lacey the shootout lead, 3-2.

When Mainland had a chance to extend it on the final attempt, Leporino read the shot correctly and was in position for the clinching save. It didn't matter, however, as the shot sailed above the crossbar to officially end the shootout, with Lacey advancing to the Group III semifinal at home Wednesday against Princeton.

"Last year, we made it to the sectional semifinals and lost and ever since then, we have been so focused and so determined to get back here and win this game," Lacey senior midfielder Abby Stephens said. "This team has so much talent from the seniors all the way down to the freshman -- everyone contributes and winning a game like this shows what a close team we are."

Prior to Mainland rallying late in regulation, it appeared one of Lacey's talented freshman was set to be the star of the game, instead of just one of many. The Lions jumped in front in the 19th minute on a goal by freshman Natalie McGovern, who got a through-ball from Stephens and slid it in from the left corner of the six-yard box.

Lacey had to manage without McGovern for most of extra time after the freshman went off with an upper leg injury.

"It's been 'next-man-up' all year for us," said Mahar, whose team was also missing . "That's their mindset. We just put people out on the field and they go out and do their job. We don't sub a whole lot, so they have to understand that sometimes, you are going to go on for a minute, you may go on for five or you may not go on. Whatever the situation, you have to go out and give your 100 percent when it's time and we're very lucky we have players who embrace that."

The last time Lacey reached this point in the season, the Lions lost to Colts Neck in the 2003 Group III semifinal. Lacey's farthest venture into the state tournament was a trip to the 1997 Group III final, which the Lions dropped to Ramapo.

"We get one more game against Princeton on this luscious grass field of ours," Mahar said in jest, referring to Lacey's natural-surface pitch that has been chewed up by so many battles by both its championship girls team and 15-win boys team. "We'll be ready and we'll see what we can do. I can barely think right now, I think I'll just enjoy this one for the rest of the weekend."

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