LUCASVILLE — When two competitive programs get matched up together in the postseason, the resulting affair usually tends to be one that is excellent to watch.
However, when two competitive programs — who are conference foes and rivals — get matched up under the same circumstances, the game is usually one that is remembered forever by those who attended the game and played in it.
On Wednesday evening, the No. 4-seeded Valley Indians and the No. 5-seeded Clay Panthers participated in one of the better boys soccer matches that one could possibly hope to see across the Southern Ohio area, with both teams duking it out in an effort to stay alive in the OHSAA Division III Southeast District playoffs.
But after both teams battled for not only one, but two halves without a salvo, it was a Ruby — Cayton Ruby, that is — who struck gold.
With both units playing gritty throughout the affair, the contest seemed as if it would be destined to come down to penalty kicks.
But just a minute and a half into the first golden goal session, the senior, off of two consecutive excellent defensive plays from Hunter Greathouse near midfield, changed that outlook in a flash by dashing down the near side and sprinting past three Clay defenders en route to finishing a shot that sailed perfectly into the right side of the upper 90 en route to giving Valley a 1-0 victory over Clay in a thrilling Division III Sectional Final at Valley High School that will be remembered by many for a long time.
For Andy Johnson, the smile on his face after the contest was all that one needed to see in order to know how the Indians’ leader felt about the affair.
“Win and advance,” Johnson said. “It was a well-played game from both teams. Clay always plays hard, and we knew that it was going to be a close game going in. There were missed opportunities from both teams early, but our kids fought through and played hard. We got one there at the end, which was a good feeling, especially considering that this is the seniors’ last game at home. I’m happy for them.”
As for Ruby, the opportunity to hit a game-winning goal in his final home affair as an Indian was, as expected, overwhelming.
“I just didn’t want this to be our last game,” Ruby said, his hands on top of a recycling bin as he looked down, trying to catch his breath in evident exhaustion. “It’s my last game at this stadium, and I didn’t want it to end in a loss. I just want to thank all of the fans, coaches, players, and God for allowing us to be in this situation. The feeling’s unreal.”
On the other side of the coin, the loss was certainly tough for Doug Ledingham to take. However, the effort from his young group was far from disappointing.
“Valley’s a great team,” Ledingham said. “Their coaches are wonderful people, and I know a lot of their players. I coached a couple of them in junior high, made some nice friends. They’re good kids. The match was everything that we expected it to be. Before the match, we knew that we’re basically mirror images of each other. We only have two seniors, and they’ve only got a couple too. It was just a couple of a young teams who really laid it out on the line today.”
Throughout the first 10 minutes of the affair, Valley controlled the ball almost exclusively on Clay’s end as the Indians used good passing and great ball control to keep the Panther defense on its heels.
But after dodging an eighth minute shot from Greathouse en route to keeping the game knotted at a 0-0 tie, the contest began to open up — as well as the shot opportunities.
From the 14th through the 17th minutes of action, Clay came right back with several strong attempts, including a shot apiece from Bryce Toomire and Marco Valle. However, Trevon Donini proved to be more than apt to stop the shots as the goalkeeper made two excellent saves to stop the initial attacks. Valle obtained another opportunity to hit paydirt in the 16th minute, but the junior’s shot glanced off of the far side crossbar.
“Trevon made a couple of really good saves for us, and kept us in the game early,” Johnson said. “Trevon’s played well for us this year. This is only his second year. He’s come a long way.”
“We had our chances,” Ledingham said. “With a game that close, you’ve got to hit them. You’re not going to get that many chances. But there’s always next year. I’m really proud of the kids. They did great. A lot of people didn’t give them credit, and they expected that because we were so young, that we would have a poor season. Tonight, to me, pretty much erases any doubts that they had about the kids, because they played hard and they worked well together, as they have all season. I love them.”
Over the remainder of the opening half, both units continued to attack as Clay and Valley amassed a total of 19 shots in the first half alone. However, the gritty, competitive defenses that both units put together kept each sheet blank as the half came to a close with neither side scoring.
“We split the regular season meetings with them (Valley won 3-1 in Valley on Aug. 29 and Clay won 3-2 at Clay on Sept. 21),” Ruby said. “Coming into this game, we knew that it was going to be a tough one. We just all had to play our best in order to come out with the win, and that’s what we did.”
In the second half of action, both defenses — other than a pair of shot attempts from Toomire and Valle in the 42nd and 43rd minutes of action — continued to hold each opposing offense at bay. But after a miraculous shot by Tanner Richards in the 65th minutes from 45 yards out — which was saved by Donini — the offenses on both sides got going again. Still, even after two excellent shots by Valley off of the back of Cameron Phillips, along with the relentlessness of Toomire, both defenses and goalkeepers kept the sheet blank through the full 80 minutes of action.
That fact, however, did not last for long.
With just over a minute gone in overtime, Greathouse made not one, but two great plays on the ball by throwing his body around and blocking a Panther advance in the process. The ball glanced off of Greathouse’s body with such force on the second play, in fact, that the ball ended up going 15 yards straight to Ruby further down the near side of the field, and the senior wasted no time converting Greathouse’s efforts into paydirt as Ruby sprinted down the side, beat all Clay comers to the 15 yard line, and pulled a high bender into the upper 90 to win the game.
“Hunter made two good blocks, kept possession of the ball, and got the ball to Cayton,” Johnson said. “We typically try to spread the field, and see if we can get a good look at goal or hit on the backside. Luckily, Cayton was able to make the run and put it in.”
“As soon as I got the ball, I saw the open space, and knew that it was now or never,” Ruby added. “I just had to go all out, because I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what would happen.”
“We threw a big defense up against Valley, and then actually ran with the Christmas tree in the overtime session,” Ledingham said. “We’re just a bit offensively challenged, so we choose to try to win with our defensive play. Cayton Ruby’s just a fantastic player, and we just ran out of steam at the end. Cayton really showed why he is such an outstanding player.”
With the victory, Valley will advance to the Division III District Semifinals, where the Indians will face top-seeded South Webster. While the Jeeps, who are 12-1-4 overall on the year, are certainly a tough opponent — as their five goals allowed in SOC I play suggest — Johnson plans to swing for the fences in a Division III District Semifinal affair that will be held on Saturday at 3 p.m. in Waverly.
“We’re extremely happy,” Johnson said. “We came off of a rebuilding year last year, and our kids really improved this year. I’m so proud of them and the growth that they’ve shown. We’ve had a lot of freshmen come in and log a lot of minutes for us this year, and they’ve done really well. We’ll have a tough one Saturday in South Webster. We know what they’ve got, and they certainly are the class of the county in soccer, but we’re going to give them all we’ve got.”
As for Clay, Ledingham and the Panthers will have to bid farewell to two of their senior strongholds — McGwire Garrison and Keeton Brown — due to the loss. However, not all is dim for Clay, especially considering that the Panthers return nine starters and a handful of additional players who weren’t able to suit up due to injury — for a team that exceeded the expectations of the vast majority with a 7-10 overall mark.
“We’ll have nine starters coming back,” Ledingham said. “In addition to that, there were five or six freshmen and sophomores that weren’t able to play this year due to injury. We should have a very competitive team next year, and I’m looking forward to 2018. I can’t wait.”