PORTSMOUTH – It was a night 17 years in the making for the Clay Panthers boys soccer program.
Thanks to excellent defensive play from Clay’s back line and senior goalie Dakota Dodds, two outstanding header goals from Clay’s all time leading goal scorer, Bryce Toomire, and a pure will to win, Clay clinched at least a share of the school’s first SOC I boys soccer league championship since 2002 in a 2-1 senior night win, Tuesday, over the visiting St. Joseph Central Flyers.
“We talked about that before the season,” Clay head coach Doug Ledingham said. “It’s one of the first goals we set for this team. It’s the first SOC championship since ‘02, the last sectional was in ‘03, and we’re going to try and do that next week.”
In a night when the Panthers were playing without some key players like junior Evan Woods, two juniors stepped up into bigger roles for Clay in Tuesday’s league-clinching win over Ironton St. Joe.
“We were going to try and throw up a big defense against them,” Ledingham said. “We had an all-district mid fielder, Evan Woods, who was unable to play. We dropped a couple of guys to defense, Corvan Clark and Dylan Collett, they’re usually varsity reserves but they were pushed into a starting role tonight, and they played fantastic.”
Clay’s first goal of the night came at the 25’ mark of the first half when Dodds, on a punt from his goalie position, found a streaking Toomire in stride for an outstanding header goal to put the Panthers ahead 1-0.
For the next 40-plus minutes of game action, Clay attempted to add to their lead, while the Flyers attempted to even things up and play road spoiler in Clay’s hopes of clinching a share of the league title.
At the 23’ mark of the second half, Flyers junior Jackson Rowe did something no Flyer aside from himself was able to do Tuesday night: score against Clay’s defense and Dodds. With just 23 minutes left in the game, Ironton St. Joe tied things up with Clay at 1-1 thanks to Rowe’s close-shot goal.
But, if it weren’t by fate and a will to win, Clay took the lead over Ironton St. Joe when senior Reece Whitley found the head of Toomire from a midfield free-kick as a rumbling Toomire found the back of the goal past Ironton St. Joe goalie Jimmy Mahlmeister to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead at the 18’ mark of the second half.
“Jimmy [Mahlmeister] is a fantastic goal keeper,” Ledingham said, “We knew it was going to take some good shots to get past him. We’ve been trying to keep it on the ground, but we talked all week about controlling the ball in the air and winning it off headers, coming in we’ve been working on headers and corner kicks quite a bit. I feel like it paid off for us in a great way tonight.”
For the final 18 minutes of regulation, it was pack-it-in time for Clay as they attempted to prevent Ironton St. Joe from fulfilling their spoiler role and prolonging the SOC I boys soccer race until Thursday.
However, a tightened up Clay defense and more excellent goal keeping from Dodds allowed the Panthers to pitch a shutout over the final 18 minutes to clinch Clay’s share of an SOC I title with Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Ironton St. Joe.
“Dakota’s the best goal keeper I’ve ever seen,” Ledingham said. “He’s a wonderful kid, he’s probably the best captain the school’s ever had, also. You can always count on him, and he’s nice to the 27th player on the team. He’s a great captain and a fantastic teammate, we wouldn’t be where we are without Dakota Dodds.”
After the emotional high of Tuesday’s senior night win, Clay must now regroup and face a team they are more than familiar with: SOC I rival Valley.
Clay enters Thursday’s game with a chance to win the league’s outright championship with a win or a draw against Valley. If the Indians are able to prevail on their home field in Lucasville, they’ll have earned their share of the SOC I title as both teams will finish conference play with a 3-2-1 league record.
And, it would be remiss if it weren’t mentioned the postseason history between these two groups.
The last two seasons, Clay has fallen to Valley in their sectional tournament by a goal in each game. This year, if Valley defeats a winless Westfall team in the sectional semifinals, they’ll have penciled in a date against Clay in the sectional finals for the third straight season with a trip to the district semifinals on the line.
“We really mirror Valley, we’re very similar,” Ledingham said of Thursday’s game. “I think we’ll have to step it up defensively, they’ve got a fantastic offense., They’re able to spread it out, and they’ve got three guys who can all score. Once again, we’ll have to win with excellent defense and opportunistic offense.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected]