WHEELERSBURG — They say to save your best for last.
For the eight-member Wheelersburg High School boys soccer senior class, their last match at Ed Miller Stadium ended up — undoubtedly — with the best feeling in the world.
That’s because, for the first time in program history, the Pirates are not only undefeated AND untied this far into a season, but they are setting sail for the state soccer semifinals.
Wheelersburg — with a thrilling, nerve-wracking, nail-biting but every bit exciting 2-1 come-from-behind victory over visiting Grandview Heights on summery Saturday — won its 21st affair in 21 tries this season, but more importantly captured its first-ever regional championship in the sport.
The Pirates, playing host to the regional championship match as per the OHSAA brackets in this coronavirus-impacted campaign, put together a defensive effort for the ages —aside from the Bobcats’ only goal which occurred with a minute and 51 seconds remaining before halftime.
That just meant another comeback performance by the Pirates, which trailed host Lynchburg-Clay 1-0 on Wednesday night in the regional semifinals.
The Pirates posted a pair of second-half goals in that one as well —which set themselves up for Saturday’s home tilt against the Bobcats (13-4-4).
And, in similar fashion to Wednesday — with Wheelersburg scoring the tying, go-ahead and ultimately game-winning goals six minutes and 13 minutes into the second half in that one — they turned the trick again on Saturday.
This time, they gained the equalizer with seven second-half minutes elapsed —and the go-ahead marker just six minutes and five seconds later with 27 minutes to go.
“We drew back on that today. We were in this position the other night. That’s just the courage and fight in this group,” said Wheelersburg coach Jon Estep.
That paved the way for the Pirates playing their best defense of the season, and under the most immense of pressure, in order to reach the coveted Final Four.
That they did, as senior goalkeeper Eric Green got a hand on every ball which was rocketed his way —as junior Josh Boggs made the non-keeper save of a lifetime with 10 minutes and 10 seconds to play.
Finally, as time rapidly wound down, and the Pirates ran out the final 10 seconds with a throw-in, there was no holding back a wild celebration — as the Orange and Black became the first Southern Ohio Conference squad since Valley in 1998 to advance to the state tournament.
The Pirates play another 21-0-0 club —Division III top-ranked Cincinnati Mariemont on Wednesday in the state semifinals.
First kick is set for 7 p.m. at Springfield High School.
Wheelersburg, in fact, was playing in its first regional final since 1994 —as these Pirates became the fourth fall sports program there to have reached the state semifinals in the past four years.
The others were the Pirate football teams in 2017 and 2018, and the Wheelersburg volleyball program for the first time in school history last year.
Now, add boys soccer to the list.
For the seniors, it’s extra special to make school history in futbol compared to the tradition-rich football program —and do it in the friendly confines of Ed Miller Stadium.
“For us to be the first (Wheelersburg) team to ever do this is just insane,” said Aaron Jolly, the Pirates’ all-time career goal-scoring leader with 118. “We’re usually thought more of as a football school. So for us to get to the state in soccer, it means a lot. It truly does. Couldn’t be happier.”
Estep described the championship as “unreal”.
“We prepared for this season like it was going to be the best season ever. So much hard work we’ve put in with that, and the continued effort we’ve had all year long and being able to stay healthy all year long to get to this point. This is an unreal feeling right now. We’ve talked about being in this moment, but to be the first team since 1994 to get to the regional final and now the first team ever to get to the state, it’s an unreal accomplishment. These guys deserve all the credit,” said the coach. “It was a grind with a lot of uncertainty. These guys kept focus for the last five or six months and have done what we’ve asked. They continue to do things on and off the pitch to make sure we continue to have a season. To have 21 games in when not knowing for sure back in August if we were going to get any in, that’s incredible. It’s a great feeling to still be moving on here.”
The Pirates are moving on, in part, to junior midfielder/forward Braxton Sammons scoring the two goals in a matter of six minutes and five seconds.
On the first, Jolly — in more of a midfielder’s role on Saturday — gained possession, slipped through a crease in the Bobcat defense, and passed ahead to Sammons in stride.
With Grandview Heights goalkeeper Owen Carter pulled up in the goalbox, Sammons’ shot seared the strings of the lower-left 90 for the 1-1 tie with 33 minutes remaining.
Sammons let out a scream, and an antsy Ed Miller Stadium soon became a red-hot energy source on the sunny afternoon.
“We made the adjustment to move Aaron (Jolly) around to a different spot and put a couple of different guys up front to get the ball to Aaron’s foot a lot more. He is our playmaker, and for him to go back there and find a crease for Braxton to slip through and get that first goal, it just energized us,” said Estep.
But Sammons, making his varsity soccer debut this season after not playing as a freshman or sophomore, wasn’t done.
With 27 minutes and counting, the Pirates’ Nathan Sylvia took a corner kick —and lobbed it directly in Sammons’ direction.
Sammons was right there on the right side for the header, beating Carter and putting the Pirates ahead 2-1.
After giving up the Bobcats’ goal on a corner, Estep said turn-about was fair play.
He said Sammons yelled “dummy”, which meant that he was going to take the shot.
“A few minutes later, just like we have all year, we get one (goal) and there is usually another one to follow. A handful of minutes later and sure enough, that’s a play on that corner kick that we’ve been working on since the tournament started. The call was to Aaron, but it was Aaron’s and Braxton’s read to where Aaron takes it or he leaves it. They worked it to perfection,” said Estep. “We don’t do it very well in practice, but dag-gone that is the only time we want to do it right all game.”
Sammons has been an all-Ohio football placekicker and punter the past two years, and decided to return to the soccer pitch in July — after having last played inter-scholastically in junior high.
He had continued to compete in club soccer during the offseason.
“Braxton has been a big addition and has brought a sense of toughness to our team and to our midfield. His skills have come back to him as the season has went on,” said Estep. “He is a team guy and wants to do whatever it is for the team first. For him to finish those two goals, that’s a big moment for him. I heard him say he was glad he came back to soccer.”
Estep and Wheelersburg head football coach Rob Woodward worked Sammons’ schedules out to where he could kick for both programs.
“I thank both of the coaches for allowing me to work off their schedules, and make it pretty easy for me to get everything I need to get done. I thank everybody for accepting me back in (to the program). Then the rest is just practice,” said Sammons. “Getting back into it, there was a lot of stuff I needed to work on. But the players make it real easy to play with. Great team with great chemistry. Getting the first regional championship for Wheelersburg in soccer, that’s huge. It means a lot.”
With Sammons’ scores, it was now a matter of the Pirate defense doing its best job on its biggest stage —as Grandview Heights had an uptick in possession, and Jolly blasted a pair of shots that clanged off the football goalposts.
With 12:37 left, Green jumped high for the save of a direct kick — before Boggs denied Leo Marcellana with an intense diving non-keeper save when Green got caught out of position.
“Josh has been solid for us all year. That diving save that he made was unreal. Probably the best non-keeper save that I’ve ever seen. But that’s just Josh’s heart, “ said Estep. “He wants it all for his teammates, and for him to dive in front of that ball and keep it from going in the back of the net was a game-saver for us.”
The Bobcats actually outshot the Pirates 16-14, including a 10-6 advantage on goal, but Green got the better of Carter —coming up with nine saves to Carter’s four.
Estep said aside from Grandview Heights’ goal, the Pirates put up an iron-clad wall with their back line and Green in net.
Along that line were fellow seniors Carter McCorkle, Logan Davis and Aiden Wright.
“I thought we played a really good first half for 38 minutes. Defensively, we held strong both halves, we just gave up too many corner kicks in the first half. Eric (Green) does an outstanding job back there in the goal, but he is only as strong as his defense,” said Estep. “As much as our offense get the credit, and the spotlight that Aaron (Jolly) brings, our defense is the backbone of our team. Those guys around Eric have just learned to gel together and they enjoy doing what they do. Moments like this make it the most for those guys.”
And, what Wheelersburg’s seniors did was save their best for last for their final home match.
That being winning a regional championship.
We just had the mindset that we could beat this team,” said Jolly. “Being down 1-0, we still had confidence. Luckily, Braxton (Sammons) was able to put two in the net and we were able to lock down defensively. Those guys are great behind me back there.”
* * *
Grandview Hts 1 0 —1
Wheelersburg 0 2 —2
GH — Connor Hayes (Gunnar Szynal assist), 1:51, 1st (1-0 GH)
W —Braxton Sammons (Aaron Jolly assist), 33:08, 2nd (1-1 tie)
W — Braxton Sammons (Nathan Sylvia assist), 27:03, 2nd (2-1 W)
SHOTS —Grandview Heights 16, Wheelersburg 14
SHOTS ON GOAL — Grandview Heights 10, Wheelersburg 6
SAVES — Grandview Heights 4 (Owen Carter), Wheelersburg 9 (Eric Green)
FOULS — Grandview Heights 13, Wheelersburg 6
CORNER KICKS — Grandview Heights 6, Wheelersburg 5
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved