WHEELERSBURG — The great “gambler” who was Kenny Rogers always said there would be time enough for counting —when the dealing was done.
Well, on Thursday night, the Wheelersburg Pirates dealt the visiting Valley Indians a 2-0 deep deficit only 10 minutes in —and then, from there, they could probably, and perhaps safely, start their counting.
As in how many more Max Hagans goals the junior standout forward would amass, and if the undefeated and twice-tied Pirates would post another shutout.
In the end, Hagans had another had trick, Wheelersburg blanked an opponent for the eighth time in 13 matches, and the Pirates remained unbeaten — following their physical 4-0 non-league victory inside Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg.
With the win, the Pirates raised their record to 11-0-2, while the Indians fell to 8-4-1 —as Valley got few shot attempts at the ‘Burg back line, let alone at Pirate goalkeeper Breyden Byrd.
Indeed, eight shutouts in a single season is a shipload — but playing solid, even superior, soccer defense is nothing new, nor surprising, to the proud Pirate program.
“We were really proud of our defense tonight. I don’t know how close they even really got to a shot,” said Wheelersburg coach Jon Estep. “They had a couple of touches off corners or throw-ins, but as far as a clean shot, I would say maybe from about 25 yards out. Our defense does a good job. We’ve given up under a goal per game right now, and defensively, we’ve done a really good job of keeping teams from striking distance most games. We have a couple of freshmen back there right now with our keeper and an outside fullback, but they are surrounded by some seniors and four defenders who were here last year.”
The Pirates, by one full game over Minford, lead the Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship chase —and can clinch no worse than a championship share, with a win over overwhelming underdog West on Tuesday night.
The Indians, on the other hand and a full a week ago, seized control of the SOC I —by rallying past visiting Ironton St. Joseph 2-1.
As the division leaders doing battle beyond the cannon inside Ed Miller Stadium, some observers predicted possibly a close and hard-fought contest —but by nine minutes in, it was Wheelersburg already up 2-0.
In fact, it was 1-0 Pirates just four minutes in —when Connor Estep executed a well-played pass via a through-ball up to freshman forward Nick Sylvia, who beat Valley goalkeeper Chris Queen and just inside the right post.
Coach Estep, Connor’s father, explained Sylvia’s goal being a confidence booster for him, and just generally the fast Pirates’ start for Thursday night.
“We talk about going into matches like this to gain momentum early on. We’ve been pretty good about scoring this year, including early on in games. Now Nick (Sylvia) has had a tough week-and-a-half here, being banged up a little and just trying to manage the length of the season. He hasn’t been himself here lately, but tonight he had a sense of confidence about himself,” said the coach. “It was good to see Nick get up there and get one going early. He had a couple of games without scoring, and he’s not used to that. To see him get back on track tonight was big for us as a team and him individually.”
One individual not lacking confidence is Hagans, who finished the Pirates’ scoring with three goals, including two on penalty kicks —once in each half and a deflater for the Indians only nine minutes in.
That’s been a 2022 Pirate theme, but one which seemed to shell-shock the Indians.
“For us, we usually get one goal, the next thing you know, we get another shortly thereafter,” said Estep.
“It wasn’t how we wanted to start the game. We kept fighting as well as we could, but it felt like air was let out of the balloon that we couldn’t re-inflate,” said Valley coach Jacob Perry. “We didn’t move the ball the way we should have, our energy was off tonight, we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. I disagree with both of the PK calls against us, but you have to deal with it. Giving up two PKs to one of the top scorers in the area isn’t ideal.”
Both PK calls were fouls inside the goalbox, and Hagans hit his sixth and seventh penalty-kick goals this year —giving him 27 goals for the season, and 59 for his already-decorated Wheelersburg career.
His tally to sandwich between his penalty-kick markers, though, was a thing of beauty —a boomer of a rocket from the 35-yard-line that whipper-snappered and covered 45 full yards into the upper-90.
That made it 3-0 with 14:53 to play prior to halftime, and only added to Hagans’ highlight reel.
“That was a fantastic shot and goal there. I told our keeper (Queen) that there is nothing he could have done to stop that shot,” said Perry. “They earned that one.”
“Max (Hagans) has been very good on PKs this year. He has capitalized on all of them. He has the confidence to go up there, he believes he is better than the goalie, and he is winning those battles right now,” said Estep. “Then getting another one on the board to go up 3-0 at halftime…Max just has that ability. He did a good job of reading their keeper who was playing a little high, he had a little space, and made a highlight shot. He saw his opening and he struck it well, and there was nothing they could do on that one. It was perfect.”
Hagans had his second penalty-kick counter with 27 minutes and 35 seconds remaining to make it 4-0, as some frustration from both sides boiled over in the final 45 minutes —in the form of three yellow cards.
All three were issued in a three-minute span — with Wheelersburg’s bench receiving one, followed by Valley’s Hunter Edwards and Jaekyn Ridout getting separate sideline send-tos.
Both squads also had a key senior player get injured and not return —with Wheelersburg’s Jackson Schwamburger with 5:15 to play in the first half with head injury, and Valley’s Lucie Ashkettle taking a shot to the knee with 7:50 remaining.
The two teams, like last season in the Division III district championship match, could see each other again in the postseason tournament.
“A little bit frustrated, but in a game you’re losing 3-0 and later 4-0, it’s easy to re-direct the wrong way,” said Perry. “Tonight just wasn’t our night or our best shot, but I feel confident seeing Wheelersburg and playing them again.”
As for the Pirates, they just continue to deal — and count — with three regular-season matches to go.
“We are still mixing and jelling, and as long as we can possess the ball and continue to move forward, we like our chances,” said Estep. “Excited about what’s ahead for us.”
* * *
Valley 0 0 —0
Wheelersburg 3 1 — 4
W — Nick Sylvia (Connor Estep assist), 36:03, 1st (1-0 W)
W —Max Hagans (penalty kick), 31:05, 1st (2-0 W)
W —Max Hagans (unassisted), 14:53, 1st (3-0 W)
W —Max Hagans (penalty kick), 27:35, 2nd (4-0 W)
YELLOW CARDS — Wheelersburg bench, 5:15, 1st half; Hunter Edwards, Valley, 4:08, 1st half; Jaekyn Ridout, Valley, 2:16, 1st half