WHEELERSBURG — Amid the rain and celebration at Ed Miller Stadium, the Wheelersburg Pirates put a bow on one of the best seasons in their program’s history.
Tested and tried even in the final week of the regular season, Wheelersburg’s achievements and statistical figures during their perfect 16-0-0 2020 campaign will go down as some of the most impressive in the Southern Ohio Conference to date.
But, it didn’t start on Aug. 21 — the first official date games were allowed to be played this fall.
This season’s achievements have really been three years in the making — as the Pirates wrapped up their third straight SOC II title last week, solidifying that top spot with a 3-0 win over Minford in their regular-season finale on Thursday.
Not knowing even three months ago if a full season was in store for high school soccer teams across Ohio, Wheelersburg coach Jon Estep said his team’s willingness to adjust to any given situation has made a strong difference every step of their journey.
“It started back in June or July, not really knowing what was going on and how the season was going to play out. We just tried to keep these guys focused on their preparation all throughout the summer,” Estep said. “We wanted to prepare like we were going to play. We were fortunate to have 30 kids out this year, able to scrimmage three or four nights a week — we thought that brought out a lot of competition in our guys. It really prepared us for this season, and then to get to the season, these guys have bought into everything we’ve tried to do.”
With an eight-man senior class leading the way on the Pirates’ 22-man roster, their unblemished mark in their final regular season donning the orange and black was just that — spotless.
What wasn’t scored on the front end by their offense was quite often denied by their back line defense and senior goalkeeper Eric Green.
In 11 of its 16 wins, Wheelersburg held its opponents scoreless — surrendering just six goals during the course of the entire season.
Thursday’s shutout victory over Minford was no different, as both the rain and the Pirates’ defense played a role in halting the Falcons’ scoring chances.
“It’s great being led back there by a goalie who’s been a two-and-a-half year starter for us and really our vocal leader on our team,” Estep said. “The work ethic he’s (Green) demonstrated to get to where he is at today, it really pushes our defense. And the benefits some of our defense has had going against Aaron (Jolly) and some of our fronts all summer, which is what we felt was the best front they were going to go against all season long.”
Wheelersburg’s toughest test in its regular-season march happened just three days prior to Thursday against visiting Unioto, which like the Pirates, had already wrapped up its respective league title in the Scioto Valley Conference.
Trailing 2-1 by the second half’s 33-minute mark, the Pirates’ pursuit of perfection would require another heroic performance by the player responsible for scoring 38 of their 87 goals in their 16-win season.
Aaron Jolly, the defending and all-things-considered likely repeat Southern Ohio Conference Division II Player of the Year, did just that against the Shermans.
Jolly managed three scores in their win over Unioto, including two in the final seven minutes to tie and re-take the lead — the final being a penalty-kick goal with three minutes to play to avoid their first non-win of the season.
Although it was the first time the Pirates’ defense had surrendered two goals in any game, it prompted Estep’s team with a new situation it had not yet faced, but could again come tournament time.
“We hadn’t been in that situation all year, and when we lost Zane Trace from our schedule, we knew facing Unioto that would be a tournament-style game,” Estep said. “We wanted to see where we stood at against a really, really good team. To see us respond when we haven’t been in that situation all year, it was a really proud moment for our staff.”
Jolly scored Wheelersburg’s second and third goals in Thursday’s win over Minford — both via free kick.
The first Pirates’ goal came in unusual circumstances, as senior Carter McCorkle attempted a throw-in from the visiting sideline at the 23:54 mark of the first half.
Minford goalkeeper Jesse Cantrell grazed the ball with his glove as it flew toward the Falcons’ goal, but was unable to stop the ball from crossing the scoring line and giving the Pirates an early lead.
After a five-goal week for Jolly in wins over Unioto and Minford, the senior captain’s career total stands at 107 — now just two shy of Wheelersburg’s all-time goals record.
Jolly said following the win that the scoring record, nor the Pirates’ unbeaten mark, would be possible without a full team effort from his peers.
“It’s been a long summer, just trying to put in as much work as possible, trying to get myself and teammates up here to shoot or practice,” Jolly said. “I have to give credit to my teammates. I’m the one scoring. However, they’re the ones putting the same amount of work out there that I am.”
“I told (South Webster) Coach (Corey) Claxon a few weeks ago that this has been a more difficult season for Aaron individually because of how the way defenses are approaching him,” Estep said. “It’s not just one guy marking him, it’s two or three guys always around him. For him to get to where he’s at right now and even put in a better year than he had last year, it’s pretty fun to sit back as a coach and watch and know it’s all the hard work he’s put in. Our guys don’t complain about the accolades or recognition he gets, they’ve bought into it and know that he’s the engine that makes this team go. They’re a great supporting cast, and it’s been huge to have them during this three-peat run.”
Whether it comes in the sectional championship match on Wednesday, or during the Division III district tournament, Jolly will seemingly pass the current career mark set by 2004 graduate Bryan Craft (109).
Craft is now the second-year boys coach at Portsmouth West, and is one of the many area coaches who have attempted to slow — or even limit — Jolly’s abilities.
During an interview earlier this week with The Portsmouth Daily Times, Craft spoke to what he sees in the soon-to-be record-breaker that makes him so difficult to stop.
“It’s a great challenge when you face someone with Aaron’s abilities and skill set,” Craft said. “Our gameplan was mark and keep him from getting the ball. Our thought is if he doesn’t have the ball, he can’t beat you. Aaron is also surrounded with other great talent that finds ways to help him get the ball. He’s very well-conditioned and it’s a daunting task to try and cover him for 80 minutes. He’s very knowledgeable of the game and works hard every second to find ways to get involved. It’s scary — even when you think you have taken his angle away or there is no way he could get a shot off, he finds a way.”
Although the Pirates have completed several of their preseason goals, still remains the task of their upcoming postseason journey.
By securing the No. 1 seed in the Southeast District seedings for the Division III district tournament, the Pirates will await the winner of Piketon and Fairland in their next scheduled contest — a Division III sectional final to be played at Ed Miller Stadium.
Now that the Pirates have entered the win-or-go-home mode that is tournament soccer, the consistencies they’ve shown throughout the season offensively and defensively — will play vital roles in their postseason run.
A postseason run that, if everything goes how they’re planning and working toward, will result in the program’s first district championship since 2013.
“Phase one is complete, get a day of rest tomorrow and come in Saturday and get ready for phase two,” Estep said.
“We certainly have unfinished business,” Jolly said. “We have a great team, certainly feel like we could go far if we put the effort in.”
Wheelersburg will host the winner of Piketon and Fairland on Wednesday — in a Division III sectional final set to begin at 5 p.m.
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved