But in the 7th minute, Sandy Gbandi weaved his way through the RailHawks box and netted a goal for the Puerto Rico Islanders in front of the 5,074 fans who packed WakeMed Soccer Park. It put the Islanders up 3-0 on aggregate goals, which proved to be too much to overcome as the RailHawks fell 3-1 in the series after tying 1-1 in the second leg.
The RailHawks had their chances, but Islanders’ goalkeeper Bill Gaudette had the answer all of them, save for a Tom Heinemann goal in the 10th.
«It hurt us letting that third goal go in,» Heinemann said. «We’re a great team and we made a great run.»
In the 12th minute, Heinemann’s blast deflected high off a Puerto Rico defender and on top of the netting.
Kupono Low’s free kick in the 23rd hit the top of the crossbar. Floyd Franks blew a close attempt on a rebound in the 35th, sailing it into the parking lot behind goal.
In the 57th and 58th minute, RailHawks midfielder Daniel Paladini powered two shots on goal that were knocked away only after diving attempts by Gaudette.
Paladini had a free kick in stoppage time that was also deflected at the last minute by Gaudette, compelling the all-league player to congratulate the Islanders’ keeper after the game.
«I just told Gaudette right now [that] he saved them,» Paladini said. «He was picking stuff out of the corners that should’ve gone in.»
The RailHawks subbed in speedy forwards like Gregory Richardson and Tiyi Shipalane, but to no avail.
It was the first time Carolina had ever advanced to the Division 2 championship in their four years of existence. The RailHawks won the NASL Conference championship after a 13-9-8 regular season.
But the sting of the loss was too much at the time for Rennie to enjoy how far his team had come in his second year at the helm.
«It’ll take some time to reflect on it,» Rennie said. «But the goal wasn’t to get to the final it was to win the final. … It’s certainly painful to lose it and I just want to take it all in so it hurts a lot, and so that it motivates me even more in the future.»