WHITEWATER — The final six and a half minutes were frantic.

The Whitewater Whippets claimed a one-goal lead in the 76th minute and had to stave off two direct kicks and a corner kick in the last 6 minutes, 20 seconds to hang on for a 2-1 victory against Fort Atkinson in non-conference soccer at Whitewater High School on Thursday night.

“I was scared of both of those (direct kicks) because they were both on frame and our keeper had to do some good work but he did well,” Whitewater coach John Chenoweth said. “So, fortunately, yesterday we were practicing what we needed to do on direct kicks.”

Fort Atkinson senior Eddie Cervantes served the first ball on goal and Whitewater senior keeper Sergio Zuniga rejected it, but he put a rebound back out into the front of the goal. The bounce went 10 feet in the air and on its way down, Caleb Strayer attempted to meet it and pop it over the seated Zuniga. The shot went over the crossbar and Strayer covered his face in disbelief with 6:09 to play.

“Eddie Cervantes played a beautiful ball forward and the keeper did what he could with it, but the ball was right there for Caleb,” Fort Atkinson coach Kent Lovejoy said. “He jumped and tried to get on top of it, but it was just miss-hit by like a half of an inch.”

The Blackhawks weren’t done buzzing. With 71 seconds left, Jimmy Keelty lined up for another direct kick. By the time Fort Atkinson got organized, Keelty fired a shot on goal with about 35 seconds left. Zuniga rejected it and redirected it out of bounds.

“I shot it, but I didn’t quite get it to the left enough,” said Keelty, who scored the equalizer in the 58th minute. “The keeper got to it and that was kind of a downer.”

The Blackhawks were unable to mount a viable scoring opportunity after the corner kick with fewer than 15 seconds remaining.

All things considered, Fort Atkinson was fortunate to have an opportunity to tie it in the closing moments of the game. The Whippets dominated possession in the opening 12 minutes of the second half. The Blackhawks broke through when Keelty ran down a loose ball and outpaced a trio of Whitewater defenders before booting a ball in stride past Zuniga with his right foot, his off foot.

That was when Fort Atkinson started to control the pace of play. Landon Zorn, Strayer and Keelty were connecting with Cervantes and Jack Calloway to create scoring opportunities.

If the defense of Henry Olmos and Eli Koehler was to be credited for weathering the storm in the early moments of the second half, Koehler found himself on the wrong end of a misplay when senior Juan Cuellar netted the game-winning goal in the 78th minute.

“There were moments where we felt like we probably should have been up by more than 1-0,” Chenoweth said. “We were happy with the quality of soccer. Whether or not we’re going to win a game, who knows at the end of the day, but I think they actually see that they’re playing really good soccer at those times. The passing is working, the communication is working and our defensive shape is working. But it helps when you win.”

In non-conference soccer, it’s about the lessons learned. So, both coaches came away with positives.

“I loved that we played it right until the end,” Lovejoy said. “Some of the physical and mental mistakes, we would love to have avoided, but I love that this team competes for all 90 minutes.”

But then there’s Keelty’s opinion.

“I feel like we’re always the most intense at the end. If we just play like that all game, we’ll play so much better,” the junior captain said. “In the final 10 minutes, we try our hardest and I feel like we need that to happen all game. That’s what we’ll need to do in the future.”

Fort Atkinson will continue its season at home on Saturday against La Crosse Logan at 1 p.m.

WHITEWATER 2, FORT ATKINSON 1

Blackhawks 0 1 — 1

Whippets 1 1 — 2

First half — W Chenoweth 22’

Second half — FA Keelty 58’; W Cuellar 76’.

Saves — FA (Encarnacion) 11, W (Zuniga) 8.

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