As Thursday's first round state soccer playoff match between Columbus and Omaha Gross crept into the later stages of a scoreless overtime, it looked as if the Discoverers were about to regret the previous 90 minutes.
CHS controlled much of the possession, had a 19-6 shot advantage and a 6-1 lead in shots on goal. The match passed 80 minutes scoreless then went into the break after the first overtime period with zeros still showing on the scoreboard.
All those chances that went by the wayside loomed larger and larger as the match progressed to the Russian Roulette that is a penalty kick shootout. But then the ball found a player it always seems to just when Columbus needs it most.
"I saw it in the air and I was like, 'I've got to go for this one.' It was perfect. It couldn't have been a better ball," leading scorer Ivan Lopez said about a free kick set into the box from teammate Antonio Jimenez.
Jimenez skied a cross from the right sideline to the left half of the penalty area where Lopez located it in the air and sent a header into the far corner.
His 21st goal of the season proved to be the game winner in a 2-0 state tournament victory. Garrett Esch added the second goal five minutes later and Columbus was on to a rematch with No. 3 Lexington, a team that took down the Discoverers in a lopsided 5-1 final on April 22.
"I rose, my teammates saw me and I didn't even see it go in. I was just excited," Lopez said. "It was a perfect connection."
Jimenez not only sent in the scoring chance, he also earned the free kick drawing a yellow card on a Cougar defender while going down after a mid-air collision.
His aerial pass came from 40 yards out and was right on the money.
"I'm always looking for Ivan whenever I cross those balls because he's the only one that can get most of those headers," Jimenez said. "I was looking for him and gave it to him."
Jorge Moncibais or Israel Robledo, Esch wasn't quite sure, set up the second goal with Gross forced to play an aggressive attack suddenly trailing with eight minutes remaining.
Esch took a through ball past a lone Cougar defender and carried it steps inside the penalty area where he ripped it to the same side as Lopez.
His goal was somewhat of a relief after just missing on two first-half setups from Robledo early on then a blast over the cross bar in the 43rd minute in which Esch had a step on the back line.
"I was aiming for the back corner. That felt good," he said. "I was really getting frustrated because I missed a couple in the beginning, some easy ones that I should have had. It was very frustrating."
Esch's first chance came in the fifth minute at the left post that he one-touched wide left of the goal. He was wide right on an even better opportunity in the 10th minute.
Lopez set him up with a bouncing ball Esch collected while splitting two defenders just after halftime.
Yet, nothing would go in. Lopez nearly had the ball all alone after a Columbus corner kick in the 66th minute but Gross keeper Brandon Villanueva arrived first.
Avery McMeekin had a one-on-one chance steps outside the six-yard box in the 72nd minute but Villanueva came out and took a piece of the shot with his left arm.
Gross' only real threat came on a blast from 17-goal scorer Eric Yanovich in the 10th minute. He found space from distance and sent a shot off the right post.
"We talked at halftime and at the end of regulation, they're a really, really good team. But we had so many good chances and couldn't convert, I just said, 'Once we get one I think we'll get another,' and that's kind of what happened," coach John Arlt said. "It was kind of our big dogs that got 'em."
Columbus finished with 21 shots to 8 for Gross, 8 on goal to just 1 for the Cougars and was slightly ahead in the foul count, 12-11. Three Discoverers, Lopez, McMeekin and Jesus Baro were shown a yellow card.
Two were booked from Gross.
"It was a battle, it was a physical game, but we got through," Arlt said.
Columbus and Lexington will meet back at Morrison at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Lexington trailed Omaha Roncalli 1-0 and had a 15-2 shot advantage over the Crimson Pride until a goal in the 73rd minute forced overtime.
The Minutemen piled on three more in the extra 20 minutes, scoring in the 85th, 91st and 92nd minutes.
Columbus defeated Lexington 1-0 in the opening round of the 2017 state tournament. The Minutemen are 0-3 all time in state tournament semifinals. The Discoverers are 1-6.
All of the top seeds advanced in Class B. Omaha Skutt took down North Platte 2-0 while Crete was a 3-1 winner over Grand Island Northwest.
Those two will meet in Saturday's first match at 9 a.m.
"I'm really excited. I want to show (Lexington) what we're made of," Lopez said. "That game, I don't know what was wrong with us. This time around, I feel like it's going to be way different."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.