Midway through the first half of Port Allegany’s District 9 Class AA semifinal soccer match against Punxsutawney, Gator fans were dreaming of a fourth consecutive trip to the D-9 championship game after Howie Stuckey’s header off a Ricky Phillips free kick gave the third-seeded Port boys a 1-0 lead at the 23:20 mark.

The second-seeded Chucks had other ideas, though. Dominating possession throughout the evening of the Oct. 22 game, Punxsy leveled the score on Vincent Gigliotti’s run at 15:43 of the first half, then pulled away in the final 15 minutes to record a 4-1 win at Brockway’s Frank Varischetti Field to advance to this week’s final against Karns City.

“We changed the formation there to try to get a little bit of pressure at the very end, and we left ourselves open defensively. Punxsutawney, they’re a good team and they took advantage of that,” Port United coach Aaron Clark said. “I’m not displeased with our effort. Punxsutawney is a fine team. They deserved to be there and they deserved to win. I’m proud of our effort; I thought we did well.”

Gigliotti, who broke the Chucks’ single-season scoring record during the regular season, buried a rocket from 20 yards out for the eventual game-winner with 14:50 remaining and completed his hat trick just over a minute later. Zach Reitz netted the final Punxsy tally.

“In my eyes, I don’t care what anyone else says, this was the Double-A final. From the beginning of the season, this was the game we looked for all season long,” Clark said of the matchup that figured to be a sure bet for the D-9 title game until Karns City made its late appearance in the Class AA standings, claiming the No. 1 seed and dropping Punxsy and Port each down a slot. An administrative error allowed the Gremlins to co-op with Allegheny-Clarion Valley this season, bumping KC up a division in the middle of the PIAA two-year classification cycle.

Of Punxsy, Clark noted, “We knew what they were. We saw the statistics; they had a heck of a season. We had a very sneaking suspicion … The second half of the season, everything we did, we looked to this game. We changed our formation. We changed our lineup specifically to focus on the defense. When we played Bradford, we played them with Punxsutawney in mind, because we knew that was going to be the kind of game we were going to have.”

Port had a chance to retake the lead with a penalty kick with just under eight minutes left in the first half, but Chucks goalkeeper Jacob Ebel turned away Stuckey’s shot to preserve the tie. It was one of the few Gator chances on the night, with Ebel needing to make just four saves to secure the victory.

“We were struggling to keep possession. I think players, as soon as they were getting the ball, they were panicking and just sending it to space. That was the problem; we just had so little possession that once we got it, we struggled to do a lot with that possession,” Clark said.

“Every time we’re up against a superior opponent, it’s all about, ‘play defense and convert on the few opportunities you get.’ We’ve lost games where we just couldn’t quite convert enough, and we’ve won games where we were able to convert enough. Tonight, we were just on the losing end of it. We had our opportunities. We scored on one set piece and missed out on a PK; if we score on that PK, maybe this game goes a different way.”

With the Chucks constantly on the attack, it was a busy night for sophomore keeper Ty Guilds and the Gator defense at the other end of the field. Punxsy outcornered the Gators 12-1 and peppered the sophomore keeper, who ended up with 14 saves to keep the game close until the final minutes. Guilds finished the season with 172 stops, edging the previous school record of 171 two-time Big 30 All-Star Josh Mealy set during Port’s run to the 2016 D-9 title.

“I have said it time and time again: We have a nice tradition of really good goalies in Port Allegany, and Ty, as a tenth-grader, stepped in and filled that void more than admirably,” Clark said. “Ty is going to have himself a really good last two years. He was our player of the game, hands down. I can’t say enough good things about him. I wouldn’t trade him for a single goalie we’ve seen this season, even Bradford’s keeper, because we’ve got Ty for two more years.”

Stuckey finished the year with 31 goals for a career total of 63, placing him firmly in third on the all-time PAHS list behind Scotty Brookens (80) and Tyler Kittilson (75) despite missing all but seven games of his sophomore season due to injury. Shawn McNeil netted 14 goals this season, giving him 26 for his career, and Simon Burleson added nine goals and a team-best 17 assists for career totals of 16 and 29. They, along with fellow seniors Jordan Card, AJ Edgell, Jesse Wright, Ben Lawton, Josh Conklin, Sean Boorum, and Trenton Dowell all took the field for the final time in the Port United black and white.

“I always get overly sentimental when seasons end and I think about what our seniors accomplished,” Clark said, then paused for a moment before continuing. “Our seniors had a career to be proud of. They won the league title three of four years, and they went to the district final three of four years ... if I count this as a district final, in my heart, four years.”