MOLINE — Jacob Estrada wasn’t sure if he’d even play Wednesday.
Turns out, he turned into the hero.
In Wednesday’s Class 1A Rock Island Alleman Regional semifinal against DePue, the Princeton junior midfielder headed in the game-winning goal off a free kick with a little less than five minutes left in overtime as he lifted the Tigers to a controversial 4-3 win.
“It’s just something you dream about,” Estrada said. “I didn’t think I was going to get to play at all this game, but I came in off the back side and it just came to me. It was just luck, and you need luck in soccer.”
The goal advanced second-seeded Princeton to the regional title game at noon Saturday.
The Tigers (15-8) — who were upset in the first round as the top seed in their own regional last year — will face fourth-seeded Rock Island Alleman (9-11-2), which beat top-seeded Monmouth-Roseville 2-0 in Wednesday’s first semifinal.
Princeton has beaten Alleman twice this season — once at the Oregon Tournament in late August and again in a regular-season matchup Aug. 30 in Tiskilwa.
“Last year was a big disappointment,” said PHS coach Jason Bird, who will miss the regional final to attend his son’s wedding. “We felt that we were the best team, but things kind of fell apart for us at the end of the year.
“This year, we fought the injury bug, illness and suspensions early, but now we have everyone back, and for the most part, we’re healthy.”
While the Tigers prevailed after 100 minutes of soccer, the win didn’t come without controversy.
With the game tied at 1-1 in the second half, Princeton’s Nate Duffy sent a cross from right to left that crossed in front of the goal and found Brody Hunt, who from near the left post redirected the ball into the back left corner of the net.
However, after the goal, DePue players argued that Hunt’s goal went wide and instead hit the back of the front post and went into the goal through an opening on the side of the net.
“It’s a tough loss when your team comes out, plays hard and comes back every single time and you’re questionable on a call,” DePue coach Tim Stevens said.
“You could see the ball get shot to the side, and (the officials) saying it winds up in the back of the net on the same side it gets shot from? Physics will say it doesn’t make sense. The ball would have had to gone in the air and take a 30-degree turn backwards to be able to go in the same back corner that it was shot from.”
The Little Giants’ protest went unheard as Princeton took a 2-1 lead with 28:41 left in regulation.
Less than five minutes later, DePue’s Carlos Acosta scored the game-tying goal with 23:35 remaining.
However, neither team was able to find the back of the net again during regulation leaving the controversial Princeton goal as a key tally.
“From what I saw, I thought the ball went underneath the goalie’s arms, and if it went underneath his arms it was clearly inside the post,” Bird said. “I thought it was a goal.”
In the first of two 10-minute overtime periods, Princeton’s Raider Keenan scored with 4:14 left in the first OT period to give PHS a 3-2 lead, but Acosta netted the game-tying tally with 20.8 seconds left in the first OT period.
Tied at 3-3 and with a little more than five minutes left in the second OT, Princeton’s Tyson Lorenzen sent a free kick from left of the goal toward the box where Garrett Duffin flicked the ball toward Estrada, who headed in the go-ahead score with 4:57 left.
With the loss, DePue ends the season at 8-8-1 and fell in the regional semifinal for a second consecutive season.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s over,” Stevens said. “I think we proved that even though we didn’t win here that we were the best team in this regional. I said it at the beginning and believe it now.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.