CRYSTAL LAKE – When the ball left his foot, Gary Sexson liked his chances at filling the role of hero. But when his shot glanced off the left post, optimism temporarily shifted to fear.
But after bounding off the post, Sexson's shot with four minutes gone in the first 10-minute overtime rifled into the back of the net, capping Crystal Lake South's comeback from a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 Class 3A Crystal Lake South Regional semifinal win over Cary-Grove on Wednesday.
With the win, the third-seeded Gators (9-11-3) advance to Saturday's regional title game against top-seeded McHenry, which earned a berth in the championship match with an overtime win over Jacobs on Tuesday.
"Our coach told us never to put our heads down," Sexson said. "So we just had to keep our heads up and keep working until the end. As long as we keep fighting, we're proud. Win or lose."
But moving on for South – at least for much of Wednesday's win – didn't appear to be a distinct possibility. That's when freshman forward Andrew Grabowski went to work.
Grabowski cut into a 2-0 deficit, finishing on a feed from Orlando Tapia. And after being outplayed by the second-seeded Trojans (11-8) for much of the match, the Gators suddenly had new life.
"They had us on our heels," South coach Brian Allen said. "The last 20 (minutes), the guys said, 'enough is enough – let's figure something out.' We got the first [goal] and they smelled blood in the water and they kept going."
Grabowski tied the score with 5:33 remaining in regulation, firing a shot just under the crossbar and out of the reach of Trojans goalkeeper Ethan Csoka.
For the Trojans, who used goals by Joey Klawitter and Kevin Wilde to build their lead, attempting to bounce back from the back-to-back goals proved to be unsuccessful, setting up Sexson's overtime game-winner.
"They kept coming at us, kept coming at us and they took advantage of a couple mistakes we made," C-G coach Mark Olson said. "One zero, two zero is the most dangerous lead to have and it's a race to three (goals) and we didn't capitalize and didn't get to three."
After Sexson gave South a 3-2 lead with six minutes left in the first overtime, the Gators held on for the next 16 minutes, never relinquishing the advantage it got set in place by Grabowski's two second-half goals.
"This is a pretty big win, but we still have to come out here on Saturday and play (with) our all," Grabowski said. "But this is a pretty good comeback to go into the books."