WAVERLY — The season that almost never was has seen many firsts for the Wheelersburg boys soccer team.
Or, at least firsts for this particular group of Pirates.
In Thursday’s Division III district final against North Adams at Waverly’s Raidiger Field, the Pirates scored first, held their first halftime lead in their third trip to the district final stage in the last three seasons, and earned the program’s first district championship since 2013.
In its 7-0 win over the Green Devils, Wheelersburg struck early and often — powering five first-half goals into the back of the net to position itself for its 19th win in as many tries this campaign.
In games against Piketon, Valley and now North Adams since concluding its unbeaten regular season, Wheelersburg has outscored its opponents 25-0 to improve to a perfect 19-0-0 heading into the regional stage.
Pirates coach Jon Estep says the five-goal advantage at the break wasn’t necessarily planned, but was gladly taken.
“Teams all year long have played us differently with Aaron (Jolly) up front and the opportunities he creates for us,” Estep said. “To be able to put five up in the first half — we didn’t draw it up that way, but we’ll take it. At halftime, the message was to stay focused. There was still some things we wanted to work on and we were a little sloppy in the early part of the second half.”
Wheelersburg’s seniors weren’t planning to make their third trip to the district finals anything like the previous two.
Trailing South Webster and Lynchburg-Clay at halftime in district final matchups of old, Pirates senior Eric Green said his team knew a fast start would be key in advancing their season.
“The last two years we started kind of slow, we knew that this being our senior year this was our shot,” Green said. “We have a really good group of guys and we knew if we put them away in the first half, it was going to be easier for us in the second half.”
Just as the rainy conditions at Raidiger Field picked up during the first half, so too came a storm of Pirate goals.
Wheelersburg senior Aaron Jolly scored just 6:40 into the game on an unassisted goal — the first of two first-half goals for the Pirates’ career-scoring leader.
Freshman Max Hagans scored at the first half’s 11:25 mark, thanks to an assist by Jackson Schwamburger on a cross-pass, making it 2-0 Wheelersburg.
Jolly added his second of three goals via header at the 30:04 mark.
The header score was set up by a Jacob Saxby corner-kick assist from the southeast corner of the pitch.
Lane Jordan scored to make it 4-0 Wheelersburg on a Jolly assist at the 34:20 mark, before Nathan Sylvia added his first goal two minutes and three seconds later.
The start of the second half was slowed with the increase of rain, but that didn’t stop Wheelersburg from adding two more scores by game’s end.
Jolly completed his hat trick with a goal at the 27:36 mark, putting him at 117 career goals for his Pirate career.
Chris Shiepis got the game’s final goal in the final 10 minutes, as Wheelersburg completed its 14th shutout of the season in 19 tries.
“It was tough because the ball was skipping a lot,” Estep said of his team’s defense. “It says a lot about our communication back there, our midfield controlling the middle of the field is important for our defense. A few times they did get back there, but that’s why Eric Green’s the defensive player of the year in the conference. He’s the best goalie in the area and he showed it tonight.”
Each of the last three seasons had been the same for the Pirates, prior to Thursday’s win — a Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship and a spot in the Division III district finals.
In its last three seasons combined, Wheelersburg has posted a 47-7-4 record and has, along the way, fine-tuned its game and team to best fit its style.
Even in 17 and 19-win seasons during 2019 and 2020 respectively, the differences in the Pirates from last season to this are quite drastic.
During the 2019 season, Wheelersburg scored 85 goals while allowing just 18 in 19 games.
This year, the Pirates have allowed just six — yes, six — goals, while scoring a whopping 111, after including the seven scored in Thursday’s win.
Whether it was the COVID-19 shutdown of spring sports and the possibility of fall sports being nixed, or its shootout loss to Lynchburg-Clay a season ago at the same stage, the road and motivation for Wheelersburg was paved long before Thursday’s championship crowning ceremony.
“During that time, we talked a lot about what our goals were as a team,” Estep said. “One of the things we did while everyone was out of school before we started was I wanted individual and team goals, from each of them. Team goals: conference championship was No. 1, and district championship was second. Last year left a bad taste in our mouths and fueled a lot of our preparation into the summer and into the season.”
To become the second Scioto County team in the last two seasons to make it to the “Elite Eight”, or Division III regional championship stage, Estep’s club will certainly have to have revenge on its mind.
Getting to the regional title means going through fellow Division III district champ Lynchburg-Clay, the same program which bounced the Pirates a season ago during a highly-contested penalty-kick shootout.
A site has yet to be determined for the regional semifinal between the Pirates and Mustangs, but both Jolly and Estep like where they are and the progress their team has made in the last 365 days and counting.
“I think it’s all about how we prepare for it,” Jolly said, of the Pirates’ upcoming regional run. “We’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re the better team, and we are. I have confidence in my team — we’ve just got to go out and play our game.”
“We want to get healthy. We’ve got some guys banged up, so we want to get back to 100-percent,” Estep said. “We’ll stick around and see what these guys have. We like where we’re at. If we stay healthy and stick to our gameplan, we’ve been pretty successful with it up to this point.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved