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Blais of glory

USF goalkeeper Chris Blais hadn’t found himself in a penalty kick shootout since high school, but that didn’t get in his way Sunday evening.

With a dive to his right-hand side in the seventh round of kicks, he sent the USF men’s soccer team through to the national quarterfinals and capped off an electric night at Corbett Soccer Stadium.

After 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, the Bulls and the Lobos, who ended their season undefeated at 18-0-4 because penalty kick losses are officially counted as ties, went to penalty kicks. In high drama fashion, the majority of the record crowd of 3,592 fans rushed to cluster behind the west goal in an effort to impact the results of the penalty shootout.

With the teams knotted at 5-5 after six rounds of penalty kicks, USF midfielder Santi Alexis made his penalty shot and Blais stopped UNM’s Carson Baldinger’s, to set off a wild celebration with the Bulls as 0-0 (6-5) victors.

“I tried to keep my ground as long as I could, so he didn’t know which way I was going,” Blais said. “I went the right way and when I saw the ball leave his foot, I knew I was going to save it. Those are the feelings you work really hard for in college.”

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win the game in regulation. For the first 70 minutes of play, the Bulls dominated in all aspects of the game, from possession to shots to corner attempts.

Yet after those minutes, the No. 1 Lobos finally found their footing and began to take control of the match.

Their best shot came late in the second half, when junior forward Devon Sandoval found an open shot from 20 feet out thanks to a bad clear attempt by Blais. Despite finding himself well out of position, Blais got back to the net in time and made a diving save to keep the game scoreless and headed to overtime.

The two teams took extremely different approaches to the overtime periods. The Lobos played an aggressive and attacking offense, whereas the Bulls looked to be satisfied with a passive attack and settled for the penalty shootout.

The approach almost backfired on USF, when New Mexico midfielder Michael Green parted through the Bulls defense and rocketed a shot just wide of a diving Blais and the net.

Even when it came down to the penalty shootout, both teams refused to allow the other to pull ahead. Each made kick was followed by the other team making a kick. When Lobos keeper Victor Rodriguez saved Dwyer’s shot in the third round, Blais followed by saving Blake Smith’s shot to keep the teams level.

After five rounds, the penalty kick round moved to sudden death, meaning the first team to make a save would likely be the victor. Both teams traded made kicks until Alexis’ make and Blais’ save sent the Bulls through.

“The beauty for being a shooter for USF is you know Blais is going to make a save or two,” coach George Kiefer said. “It takes a lot of pressure off you.”

As one of the team’s main emotional leaders, Blais has experience playing late into the NCAA tournament. He led his Michigan squad to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament last season.

“We knew we were going to win in the shootout,” Blais said. “Having the whole school behind you is really an amazing feeling. I love shootouts with the home crowd. It can’t get any better than that.”

The Bulls now travel to Omaha, Neb., to meet No. 2 Creighton on Saturday night with a spot in the College Cup on the line.