SAVANNAH — Only a Feb. 25 victory over Mount Pisgah kept the Wesleyan boys, 0-6 at the time, from a winless month to start the high school soccer season.
That same team finished much better than it started.
The sixth-ranked Wolves upset No. 1-ranked Atlanta International School 3-2 (3-1 on penalty kicks) Friday night for the Class A Private state championship. Goalkeeper Aidan Kresl played the hero role, snuffing out three straight PKs in the shootout to clinch the title.
“It was an amazing ending for our season that started very tough,” Wesleyan boys coach Guillermo Vallejo said. “The last 14 games we were 14-2 and getting to the playoffs we were picking up and then we faced teams like Walker, Pacelli and then facing a team like AIS in the championship game. That team was incredibly good. They beat us 4-0 in the regular season. It was an amazing performance from our guys.”
The title game victory was the Wolves’ eighth straight win since falling 4-0 to AIS in a Region 5-A Private match on April 6, and it snapped a 14-match winning streak by the Eagles (16-2-1), whose last loss was Feb. 16 to Marist. The earlier loss to AIS was fresh on the minds of the Wesleyan players, who wanted a better showing in the second matchup.
“I think we really wanted to win,” said Vallejo, who praised assistant coach Joe Tamel for his role in the title run. “We had a lot to prove because in the first match, we were not on a good day. Something that someone told me is that everyone remembers the championship game, nobody remembers the season. I told them to make this night memorable. They have an amazing record. But we are here for a reason. Just fight.”
That fighting spirit gave Wesleyan its second straight state championship in boys soccer — it won state in 2019 under previous head coach Billy Coxhead and the 2020 season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a battle, but all of them were fighting until the last second,” Vallejo said.
A goal by AIS with 16 minutes left in regulation put Wesleyan (14-8) in a 1-0 hole that grew to 2-0 before a frantic finish led to the teams being tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. The Wolves, taking advantage of two AIS red cards in the second half, got a goal from Aidan Conley with 3:43 left in regulation and a header goal by Max Allgaier off a long free kick by Eduardo Lopez with 2:06 left.
With AIS two players down in the closing minutes — one player received a red card for contact to Kresl’s face and the other accumulated two yellows — Wesleyan focused on possession to get its two late goals. It also maintained belief that the match wasn’t over.
“Being 2-0 against a team like AIS with five minutes left, it is easy to quit, but we didn’t because of that the resilience of our team,” Vallejo said. “We were able to come back. Many teams down 1-0 against a team like AIS, it would be over. And 2-0 is even more challenging. But one of the things on my team is we never gave up.”
Neither team scored in the two overtime periods, sending the match to PKs.
AIS made its first PK, which Wesleyan’s Cristo Martinez answered with a make. Kresl stopped the next shot he faced, then Alex Cardile was on the mark for the Wolves with his kick. After another Kresl save, Fletcher Morris converted to give his team a 3-1 edge on PKs.
Kresl followed with another PK save that sealed the championship. It capped a night when he made double-figure saves and was critical in a first half when AIS had the better possession and had five or six legitimate scoring opportunities.
“We talked before the game and said everybody has to be fantastic, but I told him you have to be the best player tonight,” Vallejo said of Kresl.
It was an exciting finish for eight Wesleyan seniors, who leave with a second state title in three seasons. The senior group features Allgaier, Andrew Bardi, Cardile, Brett Lloyd, Bryce Masters, James Mola, Morris and Ricardo Solis.
“My seniors were a fundamental part of our success,” Vallejo said.