LEXINGTON — They lost the possession battle for the majority of the second half, were outshot by a significant margin, and surrendered nearly a dozen corner kick opportunities throughout the contest.
But the St. John's Prep soccer team never wilted.
For two halves and two 10-minute overtime periods, the Eagles defense stood firm, not allowing their Division 1 North quarterfinal opponents from Lexington to break their tie despite scoring chance after scoring chance for the top-seeded hosts.
And so, for the second consecutive postseason clash, St. John's and Lexington would head to penalty kicks to decide a winner. It didn't matter how the game panned out; whichever team made more shots in the five-round tiebreaker would walk away the victor. And for those five kicks, the Eagles were the better squad.
After missing wide on the first try, Christian Buckley, Garrison Jorge, John Campbell and Sam Smith, in that order, connected on their PK tries. Buckley subsequently made one diving save, and another Lexington try ricocheted off the crossbar, giving the Eagles a dramatic 2-1 road victory.
Not only was it the second straight game decided on PKs, but it was the second straight game where Smith canned the winner. For the senior captain who missed most of the season with a nagging hamstring injury, the result meant everything.
"It feels great. It's definitely been an up-and-down season — very frustrating — but the team's really rallied around everyone," said Smith, whose team improved to 12-4-2. "We're a family and that's how we do it; we gut it out.
"It feels great to put it in the back of the net, but my No. 1 focus going up there was 'I'm putting this in the back of the net for (my teammates).' Because they've gone through this entire season without me and they've been carrying us. I couldn't ask for better teammates, better friends ... better brothers even."
With the win, St. John's moves on to face No. 4 seeded East Boston (a 1-0 winner over Somerville) in the sectional semis. That game will be played on the turf at St. John's on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Smith's game-winner was nothing fancy; just a well struck, well executed shot out of reach of the keeper. Same for Campbell, Buckley and Jorge.
But the Buckley save was the difference maker. It was one of many clutch stops the senior netminder made throughout the afternoon, which also included a pair of diving clears and an impossible cat-like reflex grab right next to the post. It truly was remarkable that Lexington never broke through, a credit to the Eagles' firm defense and superb goalkeeping.
"Christian, man ... I don't even know how he does it. It's nuts," Smith said of his goalkeeper. "Watching him in practice every day and just seeing the effort and the work he puts in is unbelievable. He deserves everything he's gotten."
Add in a stout backline and lockdown wing defenders, and it made for a frustrating day for Lexington.
"(Lexington) was coming down our throats and possessing the ball for the majority of the game, but our defense just stepped up big time," said Buckley. "I just tried to make any type of saves possible, because the guys on defense were stepping up so big for us that I wanted to do my part to keep us in the game."
Peter Danis was one of those key defenders, locking up Lexington's standout striker Sancho Maroto and limiting his scoring opportunities with regularity.
Jake Surette and Campbell were terrific on the outside, playing nearly the entire game. Will Andrews was his usual consistent self, and midfielder Ryan Hart made one miraculous clear just before the ball crossed the line into the net.
"I loved our grit," said Eagles head coach Dave Crowell. "The kids didn't panic, kept working together. That was a good team ... a really good team."
Netting the first goal of the game for the Eagles was senior scoring leader Gabe Najim. He buried a free kick from about 20 yards out midway through the opening half, giving his team a much needed boost early on.
It wasn't until nearly a full half later that Lexington (15-2-1) notched the equalizer as captain Knut Lundstrom headed one home off a corner kick. The Minutemen tallied 11 corner kicks in all compared to just three for the Prep, so to have just one result in a goal felt like a win.