Palo Verde goalkeeper Johnny Ramirez runs to meet his teammates after securing a state playoff win over Amphitheater on Saturday. The seventh-seeded Titans won on penalty kicks.


Palo Verde freshman Johnny Ramirez became a hero Saturday.

The goalkeeper leaped to his left to block a must-make penalty kick from Amphitheater senior captain Josue Ayala and send the Titans to the Division III state semifinals. The match went to penalty kicks after the teams played to a 3-3 tie in the first 100 minutes.

"I couldn't believe it," Ramirez said. "I picked the right side, I guess, and went."

Seventh-seeded Palo Verde (14-5) never led by more than a goal in Saturday's win on penalty kicks against the No. 15 Panthers, who knocked off second-seeded Douglas in the first round.

The Titans made their first three penalty kicks and the Panthers missed three straight after hitting the first one.

"We work on PKs every day and I know our guys are solid in that area," said Mario Gastellum, Palo Verde's first-year coach. "Once they missed that first one, I thought we had it."

The Titans advance to the state semifinals for the second time in four seasons. The last time (2010) they went on to the 4A-II state championship game and lost to Phoenix Cortez.

The Titans will face the same program, Cortez, in Wednesday's semifinal at Phoenix Arcadia at 5 p.m.

Junior Bwaleso Igulu scored two goals Saturday and hit the final penalty kick. His older brother Assani was on the squad that went to state championship game three seasons ago.

"I know we can do this. This is our year to win the championship," Bwaleso Igulu said. "I'm trying to prove to my brother I can do better than him and I can get a ring before I graduate. That's my goal."

Igulu scored on a header in the 37th minute to give Palo Verde a short-lived 1-0 lead.

The Panthers (15-9) opened the second half with heavy pressure that resulted in two quick goals. Francisco Rubio found an open shot from the left side moments after a free kick; later, Ayala knocked a goal in off a defender on a corner kick from the right side.

Palo Verde's Ather Dawod tied the in the 48th minute with his 36th goal of the year, to the left corner of the net.

"Our offense is amazing," Dawod said.

"I wasn't worried, I knew no one was going to give up so we just played hard. It's a great feeling, I've never been in this position."

"Hopefully we make it all the way."

Palo Verde took a 3-2 lead in the 84th minute on Igulu's second goal of the game. Four minutes later, Amphi tied it on Ayala's second goal.

Amphi had won five of its last six games before Saturday, only giving up three goals in that stretch.

"It went right down to the PKs and we can't ask for anything more than that," Amphi coach Mike Gonzales said. "We obviously would have liked to win it in regulation but got unlucky."

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