Coastal Carolina is going back to the NCAA tournament.
Paavo Riihijarvi slotted home a penalty kick in the seventh round of Sunday's shootout to defeat Georgia State and send the Chanticleers to the tournament for the first time since 2017.
"This championship is a testament to the guys and their belief in themselves and each other," assistant head coach Kyle Russell said. "They believe they can beat whoever is on the field and they understand of the tradition that we have here at Coastal. We are looking forward to getting back to the NCAA tournament for sure."
In regulation, it was a tale of two halves as Georgia State controlled a majority of the ball in the first half. The Panthers had 10 shots to the Chanticleers’ four, but senior goalkeeper Albert Ciroi made two critical saves to keep the score level at zero.
The second half was all CCU. Nine shots for the Chants to the Panthers three, but it was the Panthers in the 86th minute that broke the deadlock thanks to a rocket of a goal by Matt Fearnley from 27 yards out.
"You have to stay positive in those situations," Russell said. "Our guys never put their heads down and they kept fighting. Because of a game earlier in the year where we scored in the final minute of the game to win, we knew we were capable of scoring extremely late goals.“
That's exactly what happened. The Chants kept attacking and got a corner kick. Senior captain Morten Timm found Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Sam Snaith on the edge of the six-yard box and Snaith tapped in the equalizer in the 88th minute.
"We still had three minutes to go," Timm said. "We kept pressing and in the end we got a corner. I saw the massive guys in the middle of the box and I knew I had to put it there and if I did, one of our guys was surely going to put it in the back of the net."
In the first overtime, Georgia State nearly ended things within the first 45 seconds but an offsides call kept the score level at one apiece.
Coastal turned things up in the second overtime but could not find the championship winner, despite recording five shots to the Panthers’ zero.
The championship would be decided by a shootout. Georgia State thought they would have an easy route through the shootout after Snaith missed his attempt in the first round.
"We have been working on penalty kicks situations for a while,” Russell said. "We have been taking the time after training to work on our penalties and a major credit must be given to our goalkeeper coach. He has made sure that Alberto has had his confidence up and that was definitely seen today in the shoot out."
Ciroi came up big in the second round, saving Aris Briggs’ shot. Naty Endale netted his attempt and it was 1-1 after two rounds of the shootout.
The Chants and the Panthers traded makes for the next four rounds, including former St. James forward Luke Williams making it 5-5 after six rounds.
Georgia State’s Frank Rosenwald hit the crossbar, which meant that all Riihijarvi needed to do was make his and the championship was Coastal’s.
Winning the Sun Belt tournament means that the Chanticleers automatically qualify for the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
The win also avenges the 1-0 loss the Panthers handed Coastal on Oct. 27 at CCU Soccer Stadium.
This is the third time in four years as a member of the Sun Belt that the Chanticleers have won the tournament. All three championship game wins have come against Georgia State.
Following a four-save game, Ciroi was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Sun Belt Tournament. Ciroi, as well as Jeranimo Power, Kasper Skraep and Snaith, were named to the Sun Belt All-Tournament Team.
The Chanticleers will learn their NCAA Tournament destination when the field of 48 is announced Monday at 1 p.m.