Ryan Lawler has proven to have a flair for the dramatic this season.
It turns out he was the perfect person to lead the GCIT boys soccer team to a historic victory.
Lawler broke a 2-2 tie with 10 minutes remaining on Saturday as the seventh-seeded Cheetahs defeated 10th-seeded Cumberland, 4-2, in the first round of the South West D, Group 3 playoffs at Rowan College of South Jersey.
It was the first playoff win in the 21-year history of the program. The Cheetahs, who improved to 7-4-2, had already clinched their first winning record with a solid regular season.
Lawler also has game-winning goals against Deptford and Timber Creek this year, the latter of which came with 7.5 seconds left in regulation.
“(My favorite goal) has to be scoring in the last 10 seconds of the game against Timber Creek, on this same field,” he said. “But this one was also pretty good. This is our first playoff win so it’s definitely exciting.”
Senior defender Ryan Kane scored his first career goal, while Krish Olmedo had a goal and two assists and Salvatore Donnian added a goal and assist. GCIT moves on to face second-seeded Moorestown in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“This honestly means a lot,” Kane said. “The past three years have been alright but being able to get our first playoff win feels really good. … We’ll try our best (against Moorestown). We’ll work on finishing and try to make sure nothing gets past us.”
GCIT started its program in 2000 under coach Carl Heil, who left for Kingsway after two years. That’s when Gene Knorr took over, and he’s been leading the Cheetahs ever since.
“My first year was the first year we actually won a game,” he said. “We were a coed team; we had girls on the team for a while. We’ve come a long way. We went from being Group 1 to Group 2 and now we’re Group 3, and we might end up being Group 4 one of these days. It keeps getting more challenging all the time.”
Knorr came into this season believing it might be the year for his team to break through, but he didn’t want to get too optimistic with the likes of Kingsway, Clearview and Williamstown on the schedule twice each.
“We didn’t have any seniors on our team last year and we competed well with some good programs,” he said. “I really thought coming in that we would compete with the teams we play. … When you play good teams you end up being better as long as you have the right mentality. These guys are mature now and they’ve come together at the right time.”
GCIT displayed great teamwork on Saturday and strong passing led to several of its goals, particularly on Connor Mullin’s assist to Donnian to open the scoring and Olmedo’s feed to Lawler on the game-winner.
“It’s all about connecting passes together,” Lawler said. “We’re a team that can play well when we want to. We can connect passes well and play possession if our heads are in it.”
GCIT had dominated the second half, racking up shots and corner kicks, but found itself in dangerous territory in a tie game late in regulation. Knorr credited Lawler and Olmedo for coming through in the clutch.
“(Lawler is) one of the players who puts it away when he gets an opportunity,” he said. “He doesn’t choke or seem to get nervous; he hits the net instead of the goalkeeper. He’s a good, consistent player who takes the game seriously and works hard.
“And Krish is a real calm, nice player. He doesn’t look like he’s dominating but he’s always doing the right thing. He doesn’t try to beat people when he can’t. He distributes real well and he’s kind of the general out there in our midfield.”
Olmedo also assisted on Kane’s goal, which had given the Cheetahs a 2-1 lead earlier in the second half. He played a short free kick to Kane, who found himself all alone on the right side and decided to fire away from 40 yards out, a perfect shot that found the far top corner of the net.
“That was a relief because I wanted to make an impact this year and get some statistics,” Kane said. “I’m usually at right back so I just play the ball and try to get assists. But on that play I saw I had space to shoot so I just took the shot. No one was pressuring me and I had an opportunity.”
Kevin Baran had a goal and assist and Jason Angel also scored for Cumberland, which twice battled back from one-goal deficits and stayed in the game until the end. Angel also had a chance at a header to tie the score in the final minute but GCIT’s Daniel Olaya knocked the ball away, leading to a counter and Olmedo’s insurance goal with four seconds left.
“We’ve made comebacks before so we’re used to that,” Cumberland coach Gene Thomas said. “Last year, that’s what happened in our first-round playoff game; we battled back to get a win over Toms River East. I told the guys it would be tight and it could easily go into overtime. I said if they get up one we just have to battle, and that’s what we did two times. We just ran out of time on getting that third one.”
Keeper Noe Angel kept the game close with some outstanding saves from point-blank range and finished with 14 stops.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Thomas said. “He’s earned that (starting job) because he’s fearless. As you can see, he throws his body all around. I’ve been telling him that he has to make the routine plays but he also has to make some extraordinary ones, and he did that today.”
Angel will return next season along with every other starter except for senior center back Aidan Kennedy, so the Colts will be in good position to improve. They finished this season with a 3-11-1 record.
“We should be strong for the next two or three years,” Thomas said. “This is experience that we’ll learn from. We’ll take how this feels right now and walk it into next year and next year’s playoffs. A couple of these guys were here last year when we had that first-round win so they know what’s it like to win. We’re trying to build a winning mentality and we’re hoping to take that into next season.”