CRANSTON — Thomas Zhao always hoped he’d have the opportunity to employ a task that he’s focused and worked on for hours on end, both as a member of Lincoln High’s boys' soccer team and in his spare time.
On Sunday afternoon, that chance was thrust upon him, but this was no ordinary circumstance.
After officials whistled a foul on one of the Lions’ foes from North Smithfield – and with only 3:49 left in a second overtime session of this R.I. Division II Tournament championship final – Zhao lined up to take a 34-yard direct kick from “straightaway center” of the Cranston Stadium turf.
When he struck it, he knew it had a chance to go in, but Northmen junior goaltender Ethan Cote leaped for the deflection. For a millisecond, it looked like he might be able to deflect it ever so slightly.
Instead, though, it caromed off the crossbar and down, then spun back into the cage.
Next thing anyone knew, the crowd of several hundred inside the stadium reached a fever pitch, Zhao looked dazed and his teammates climbed all over him to celebrate what proved to be a stellar, chess-like 1-0 victory over NS.
And, with it, the fourth-ranked Lions (13-3-3) became the latest state champions, courtesy of a mild upset over the No. 2 Northmen.
After completing a couple of interviews for local TV cameramen, Zhao admitted he was prepared for such a situation.
“I saw the keeper off his line (that is, goal line), and I saw him creeping up, but I don’t think he realized that,” the rather shy Zhao explained (obviously, he was running on adrenaline). “I was, like, 30 yards out, and I aimed it high to get it over his head. It’s something I’ve been practicing for a long time – long-distance shots.
“I practice when I’m at school every day, but when we’re not, I practice them on my own,” he added. “I guess they paid off … I have to say I was really surprised when it went in. I mean, it was, like, the winning goal, and I’m shocked. If it wasn’t for that, I think we’d still be playing. We’d still be in a shootout, then it could have gone either way.”
For complete story and more photos, see Monday's print edition of The Times