WHEELERSBURG — Perhaps the Pirates had to be 21 to make it to the state semifinals.
But, in order to advance to MAPFRE Stadium and Saturday’s state championship match in Division III, they will need to catch 22.
That’s because Wheelersburg, with a perfect 21-0-0 record, will play in the program’s first-ever boys soccer state semifinal on Wednesday night —as the Pirates actually encounter another undefeated squad.
That being fellow 21-0-0 and Division III top-ranked Cincinnati Mariemont, as the Warriors will be making their second all-time Final Four appearance.
Both teams have encountered close contests to reach the state semifinal —as the winner will surely survive and advance to the coveted state championship, which takes place on Saturday at the home of the Columbus Crew.
Wednesday’s semifinal, though, is the first order of business —as kickoff at Springfield High School is set for 7 p.m.
The Pirates, in winning three of their final four tournament tilts by exactly one goal apiece, pulled off a pair of 2-1 come-from-behind triumphs in the regional bouts (2-1 over Lynchburg-Clay in regional semifinal and 2-1 over Grandview Heights in regional championship) —scoring two second-half goals in each.
Braxton Sammons scored both of the Pirates’ markers in Saturday’s second-half rally past the visiting Bobcats —off an Aaron Jolly assist and a Nathan Sylvia corner kick a mere six minutes and five seconds apart.
“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,” said Wheelersburg coach Jon Estep.
And despite their 4-0 regional final shutout blowout of Botkins, the Warriors —winners of the Cincinnati Hills League —have also won one-goal tournament battles, including over Cincinnati Country Day in overtime (3-2) along with Yellow Springs (4-3) and Troy Christian (3-1).
Estep said the squads are similar with surviving close calls, and that the Warriors enjoy excellent team speed.
“We’ve found out through working the phone lines and talking to some people that they have some talented players and are really fast,” said the coach.
Estep expanded upon that, as Mariemont sports two of the top soccer standouts in all of Ohio — Luke Brothers and Kyle Croll.
But the Pirates counter with Aaron Jolly —once again the Division III Southeast District Player of the Year.
Jolly has 21 assists and 48 goals, and is the Pirates’ all-time goal-scoring leader with 118 in his decorated career.
Estep said as the tournament trail has gotten longer, the opposition attempts to take touches away from Jolly —meaning Sammons and others must pick up the scoring slack.
“We’ve 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,” he said.
Sammons is the Pirates’ second-leading scorer with a dozen markers on the campaign, coming back to play varsity soccer this season after focusing exclusively on football punting and placekicking the past two years.
He has kicked for both sports at a high level this fall.
Also playing at a high level is the Pirates’ defense, which has posted 15 shutouts in 21 tilts — as Wheelersburg has outscored its opponents by a staggering count of 94-7.
Only Unioto with two has scored more than one goal in any one match against the Pirates all season.
Along the back line are seniors Carter McCorkle, Logan Davis and Aiden Wright — directly in front of rock-solid senior goalkeeper Eric Green.
“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.”
And, what they need to do on Wednesday will be to keep the Warriors out of the net — if the Pirates plan to catch 22, and advance on to Saturday’s state championship bout.
The other Division III semifinal, being played on Wednesday night at Mansfield Senior, pits a pair of 15-win teams —Youngstown Cardinal Mooney and Toledo Ottawa Hills.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved