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Crusaders Leep into finals

Harrison Leep's knees buckled as he dropped to the artificial turf, the emotion on his face illuminated underneath the lights at U.S. Cellular Community Park on Tuesday.

Overcome with emotion, the St. Mary's junior wing was promptly picked up by his teammates and delivered into a sea of celebration following the Crusaders' 1-0 victory over Dayton in the Class 3A/2A/1A state semifinal match.

Leep's miss-if-you-blink breakaway goal just 54 seconds into the contest proved to be the game-winner, giving St. Mary's its 10th straight win and propelling the Crusaders into the state championship match.

St. Mary's will face Catlin Gabel (15-0-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Liberty High in Hillsboro. The Eagles beat Riverside, 4-2, in the other semifinal game on Tuesday.

For the members of the Crusaders who were on last year's team, the triumph was extra sweet. St. Mary's, which has made it to the semifinals three times in the last five years, fell to Catlin Gabel, 1-0, in a 2009 semifinal. That Crusader team had nine seniors who started.

"This was pretty much a whole new team," Leep said. "We really stepped it up and came together as a team."

Juan Becerra-Felix assisted on the score for St. Mary's (12-2-2). The deep pass was quickly gathered by Leep, who burst downfield.

"It just happened so fast," Leep said. "I just took off and then it happened. I placed it and watched it roll down the back of the net. I never felt so good in my life."

St. Mary's fifth-year head coach Paul Coughlin said his team's effort was strongest in the first half, when the Crusaders recorded several close scoring chances. Included in that list was another breakaway opportunity by Leep about 10 minutes after his first goal, which he kicked just left of his target.

St. Mary's had plenty of spunk on defense as well, with Noah Conway and Garrett Coughlin each breaking up scoring opportunities in the first half. With 1:17 remaining in the first 40 minutes, St. Mary's defender Riley Parsons halted Gerardo Vargas' shot attempt just outside the goalkeeper's box.

"We played tough defense and had a few clean looks at goal that just didn't go in the back of the net," coach Coughlin said. "It is very fortunate it was 1-0 at halftime. The tide changed a bit in the second half. Halftime almost always favors the losing team. That is what we saw happen. (Dayton) got jacked up and they knew they were still in the game. We were able to hold it and come out with the win."

The Pirates (13-4-2) came on strong in the final 40 minutes, keeping St. Mary's on its toes with a handful of daring attacks. Esteban Cruz sent a free kick from the Crusader 20-yard line with 1:50 left that was just high, and Dayton's offense turned on one final surge in the final minute only to be denied.

"The message was pretty simple, 'Let's get on the board, get on the board and start getting a point to move on,'" Dayton head coach Jose Cruz said. "You score, you move on. Today we were at the phase the ball didn't go in."

Sophomore goalkeeper Derek Reynolds, who helped stop a number of Dayton charges, logged a complete-game effort between the pipes.

"He is one of the unsung heroes on the team," Coughlin said of Reynolds.

The match was the Crusaders' first home playoff contest of the season. St. Mary's needed road victories over Westside Christian and Riverdale to advance.

Leep could only imagine afterward what the celebration might look like if his team comes out on top this weekend.

"I would be down on my knees crying if we won it all," he said.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com

St. Mary's Pancho Acuna-Miranda kicks the ball toward the goal during Tuesday's game at U.S. Cellular Park. - Julia Moore