AURORA - Alexander Cullen had his back to the goal and was completely surrounded by one of the stingiest high school soccer defenses when his team needed him most. He knew, in that moment, Pine Creek wouldn't get a better shot than this at a state-title berth.
So, he slowed down his breathing, spun around and thought to himself, "just strike it as hard as you can."
Next thing he knew, a parade of his teammates jumped on him in celebration. Wednesday, the right-footed Cullen lifted the No. 4 Eagles (16-1-2) to their first 5A state title game appearance after he drilled a 20-yard strike with his left foot. It deflected off a defender and trickled under the arms of keeper Henry Huettel in Pine Creek's 1-0 golden-goal overtime win over No. 9 Boulder (15-4) at Legacy Stadium.
It was Cullen's sixth goal of the season and Pine Creek's biggest in school history.
"I just wanted to hit it hard, and since I knew I had to hit it with my left foot, not my right, I wanted to hit it hard and just hope it went the right way," said Cullen, a senior. "Once I stuck it, I was like 'Oh, it's going wide left.'"
"But then, it hit a Boulder player and my teammates started celebrating. It was an amazing feeling."
Before that, the Eagles and the 5A defending champ Panthers traded scoring chances all night.
Pine Creek keeper David Meyer and Boulder's Huettel each had five saves before the Eagles were awarded a delayed-whistled free kick from 25 yards out of the Boulder net in the 87th minute.
The Panthers, who had 11 shutouts this season, again showed their strong defensive presence and blocked the free-kick try, but couldn't quite get it out of their zone as their clearing-attempt boot went right into the chest of Cullen atop the box.
From there, the senior turned his back to the net, trapped the ball and twisted around with a left-footed strike to end the game.
"Boulder was by far the best team we've played. This one could have gone either way," 13th year Pine Creek coach Ben Corley said. "We knew we could break down that wall eventually. And at the start of overtime, right when I put Cullen back in, I knew he had one of the purest strikes on our team. I told him and the team going into it (overtime), it only would take one strike or one moment of brilliance to do something this school has never done before. And, yeah, the ball went to Cullen and these kids made history."
Earlier, Meyer made back-to-back saves on Boulder's best offensive player, Mason Douillard, in the 54th minute to keep the game scoreless. First, he tipped a breakaway shot just left of the net, and then leaped to the ground to corral Douillard's header off the ensuing corner kick.
"This is the greatest feeling ever," Meyer said, "We have each other's backs and now we just have one more step."
Pine Creek faces Rock Canyon in the 5A state finals on Saturday at Dick's Sporting Goods Field.