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Port Chester's Preston Higgins has battled through a nagging ankle injury all postseason.
In Saturday's NYS Class A state semifinal against Section 3's Fowler at Middletown's Faller Field, the senior winger simply rose above it — literally.
The 6-foot-2 Higgins soared to head in the game-winning goal off a towering cross from Alexis Valdovinos with 6:06 left in the first overtime period to lift the Rams to a 2-1 OT win over the Falcons (19-2).
Port Chester (19-1-2) will square off against defending NYS Class A champ Jericho in the championship tomorrow at Middletown's grass field at 10:30 a.m.
"That's a key play we have been working all year for me to get open in that position and use my height to my advantage," Higgins said. "As soon as I buried my head right toward the goal, I knew the goalie was short and didn't have a chance on it."
It was the first goal of the playoffs for Higgins, who first injured his ankle in the regular-season finale against Byram Hills. He tweaked it again in the sectional final and was forced to the sideline on two different occasions against Fowler.
"I have been learning to work around (the ankle injury) by using my height to get up there to use my head instead of using my foot all the time," Higgins said. "Anything in the air, that's where I go for domination.
Overall, the Rams dominated every facet of the match, controlling possession while outshooting Fowler 23-7. But the Falcons caught an early break when Vincent Ndabaruta was taken down in the box. Jean-Paul Mboyo converted the ensuing penalty kick to give the Falcons a 1-0 lead in 11th minute.
"No comment," Port Chester coach John Cafaldo said of the call that led to the penalty kick. "I saw a blue jersey pulled pretty far and I was not pleased with that call."
Rest-assured, the Rams refused to panic and produced the equalizer just two minutes later. Senior midfielder William Ribiero, who was an absolute beast from box-to-box, scored it on a looping volley.
Despite leading the team in assists during the regular season, Ribiero has flown way under the radar in 2012.
"I'm really just a ghost on the team," Ribiero said. "It feels good to get my goal and get some attention."
And it wasn't just the goal that drew praise from Cafaldo. Ribiero won virtually every 50/50 ball and played with a seemingly tireless motor, masterfully dictating Port Chester's pace.
"Will's been unbelievable," Cafaldo said. "I don't know what else to say. He has just played unbelievably well. He goofed around with me yesterday and said, 'Put me up top I want to score.' But I told him, 'You are in the middle for a reason.' He took that to heart and has been busting it and playing awesome."
The fact players not named Steven Hernandez scored Port Chester's goals was also noteworthy. The freshman striker, who was triple-teamed throughout the entire match, failed to score for the first time in the playoffs. Entering the match, he had tallied seven of the Rams' nine postseason goals.
"Steven will always be Steven, but it shows everybody that we have players on the field who can step up at anytime," Ribiero said. "And today we stepped up."
Senior captain Jose Gonzalez spearheaded the defensive effort with six saves. All-section sweeper Bryan Suertegaray kept the back organized and was crucial in containing speedy Fowler strikers Ndabaruta and Abdulkareem Abdulkareem.
"We've had the defense all year," Cafaldo said. "They've answered the bell all year and they stepped up huge again today."
While Port Chester eventually escaped with the win, there were undeniably some anxious moments as its offense struggled to penetrate the Falcons' wall-like defense. Fowler dropped 10 guys behind the ball in the second half and looked perfectly happy with the match being decided on penalty kicks.
"I couldn't believe that we were still in overtime," Ribiero said. "We dominated the whole game and we had chance after chance but the ball didn't want to go in. When Preston finally put a ball in, it was the best feeling in the world."
The Rams will try and duplicate that feeling in tomorrow's final against Long Island powerhouse Jericho, which cruised to a 4-2 win over Williamsville East in its semifinal. The Jayhawks — ranked No. 1 in the state — enter as a solid favorite.
Port Chester, meanwhile, will be looking to make history. The Rams have never won a state title in soccer.
"We are going to win —— ain't no doubt about it," Ribiero said. "To us, we are No. 1 in the state so it doesn't really matter. We are going to win and get that state title."
Higgins agreed with his teammate.
"We know (Jericho) is a good ball-working team, but we are up for a challenge anytime," he said. "We are Port Chester and we never give up."
And Higgins' performance proved it.
Email Isaac Cass at Icass@cablevision.com | Follow him on Twitter @MSGV_Icass