WAVERLY — If you poll these Wheelersburg Pirates, perhaps —most likely even — they wanted another opportunity against the Valley Indians.
That said, it’s rare for a Wheelersburg boys soccer squad to suffer the same fate to the same team — twice in one year.
But if you often ask, often times you shall receive —and the Pirates indeed made the most of their second matchup against the Indians on Saturday, for the Southeast District Division III district championship at Waverly’s rave Raidiger Field.
That’s because the Pirates posted two first-half goals within a 10-minute span —and hung on for dear life late after the Indians’ Austin Sommers scored to cut the deficit in half —en route to capturing their second straight district title with a 2-1 victory.
That’s correct, as the third-seeded Pirates exacted a rare measure of revenge —and raised their record to 15-4-0.
More importantly, they defended their district championship —which culminated last season with a final 21-1-0 mark, and the program’s first-ever state tournament appearance.
It also marks the fourth consecutive season that the Pirates have eliminated the Indians in the district round —with the first three being semifinals, including last season’s 1-0 epic inside Ed Miller Stadium in Wheelersburg.
The second-seeded Indians, in gaining their own revenge measure, snapped the Pirates’ 27-match regular-season win streak on Sept. 7 — a 3-0 decisive Valley victory on The Reservation, which gave the Purple and Gold its first win over Wheelersburg since 2012.
But both coaches knew Saturday’s tournament tilt would be much more competitive and even fiery— as the Pirates have vastly improved from that defeat, in which they were the younger and inexperienced squad still trying to find an identity two weeks into the season.
“It was a wakeup call for us,” said Wheelersburg coach Jon Estep. “After such a great season last year and a new group of guys coming in this year that did have some contributions to that team, it was the first time we questioned what our roles were, and for us as a staff what adjustments we need to make. We were timid that first game, but our approach going into this game was not to be fearful. We talked about taking the challenge to them, being tough and being physical. Valley has had a great season, but for us, it was to challenge them and go from there. We did a great job in the first half. With what we’ve done with our formation and switching things up to put our guys who can control the middle of the field and going to a two-stopper look, when our middle is that strong, we feel we can control the game. We kept the pressure on them.”
The Indians, indeed, were unable to generate any offense early on.
“It felt like everything we did just wasn’t working. It was almost like a false hype that we were too excited and too pumped up for this. We were invested in trying to score immediately, we weren’t patient in trying to move the ball around. The first half, Wheelersburg played hard, and probably played harder than we did,” said Valley coach Jacob Perry. “When you get down to a good Wheelersburg team, one goal is fire for them.”
The Pirates proved to be the early aggressors, and played more of a defensive posture late —but it was two first-half goals which Wheelersburg benefited most from.
In the opening half, the Indians didn’t have a single shot on goal to the Pirates’ four —as Wheelersburg frustrated the Indians into 13 fouls while whistled for only four itself.
Finally, the Pirates put a goal up with 11-and-a-half minutes remaining, when Braxton Rase beat Valley goalkeeper Chris Queen off a Jackson Schwamburger assist.
“We won the ball at midfield, Connor (Estep) got the first touch and Jackson (Schwamburger) just skipped it over the top, and Braxton was right there with a one-on-one and did a great job of finishing,” said Estep. “We talk about winning the first touch, and winning the ball out of the air. It gives you opportunities. The key for us was scoring first to establish a confidence level, especially the way they played us the last time.”
Perry said a defensive letdown let Schwamburger and Rase run right down the center of the pitch.
“Just lost track of one of their guys running straight down the middle,” he said. “Put a good shot on goal and it’s hard to stop that.”
However, sophomore Max Hagans’ header for the Pirates’ second marker — a diving one at that off a well-executed Jacob Saxby cross from the corner — was both a thing of beauty for the Pirates, and a dagger-end of the sword for the Indians.
And, it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time — with a minute and 56 seconds remaining in the opening half.
“Wow! We work on corners everyday in practice, and we’ve been waiting for somebody to hit a diving header. We’ve only had one kid try in practice over the seven years I’ve been here, and Max has never tried it,” said Estep. “He (Hagans) looked at me at halftime, and he just said he saw it and was leaving it all out here for the district championship. Max is an outstanding player for us and makes great reads and sees the field. He saw an opportunity and he made the most of that opportunity.”
For the Indians, it was an opportunity lost for a colossal defensive clear in front of Queen.
In the grander scheme, who knew that a goal off the head could be such a punch to the gut?
“We just lost Hagans within the mix, watching the ball and not watching our guys,” said Perry. “That was definitely a kick to the stomach right there at the end of the half. Trying to just end the half 1-0 was our main goal. That goal hurt a lot.”
Although, the Indians recovered with much greater push as the Pirates played more defensive-minded —and finally broke through with Sommers’ goal with 14:45 to play.
“The second-half difference was our guys wanted it. A 2-0 deficit is almost the worst position we can be in. We had nothing to lose at that point. Everything had to go,” said Perry. “We’ve worked four or five days every day since June. So working 40 minutes wasn’t that hard. It was just matching their energy and what they were doing.”
But, that could have been the tying goal instead of Valley trailing 2-1 —as Connor Estep made an incredible non-keeper save with half the second half gone by, as Davey Petry put a blast that was already by goalkeeper Gavin Rase.
Estep — somehow — made the knock-away with the wide-open net, preserving the 2-0 lead at that point.
Rase then made a dramatic save in the final 30 seconds — so much so that the ball’s rebound angled away from Valley’s Lucie Askettle, who was actually unguarded on the left post and would have had a point-blank look.
The Indians also couldn’t convert any of their four corner kicks, compared to the Pirates’ pair.
“I think we possessed the ball for almost 80-percent of that second half. But it just felt like a lid was on the goal,” said Perry. “Balls just taking bounces against us instead of for us. Unlucky all around today.”
Coach Estep agreed that his Pirates played well, but that lady luck and even some soccer gods — especially in the second half — were on their side.
“We were back on our heels a little bit, which is something we have to correct,” said the coach. “We were able to hang on, but it was a scary final 20 minutes. Connor covered the goal on the backside giving Gavin support on that one shot, and it was something we have practiced this week. Gavin made a couple of really good saves in the second half too.”
And, those second-half saves prevented Valley from forcing an overtime or two — or perhaps penalty kicks.
The Indians, winning their first Southern Ohio Conference Division I championship since 2002 and ending with a final and stellar record of 16-2-1, only lost at SOC II and Division III district champion Minford in the regular season.
Valley will graduate five seniors —Petry, Sommers, Bruce Stuart, Chase Ruby and Ethan Cunningham.
“This is one of the best senior classes this program has had in a while. Proud of the way these guys stepped up to take on the challenge of this year,” said Perry. “Never let me down once. Very proud of them and couldn’t ask for a better group. It’s a very bad taste in the mouth to end like this, but what we’ve been able to accomplish this year hasn’t been done at Valley in quite a while. Proud of everybody for showing up every day working for it.”
Speaking of playing another day, the Pirates will do just that —after winning their ninth all-time district title, but only the second since 2013.
The others occurred in 1988, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2010.
“This feels great,” said Estep. “For this group, we’ve talked about how they (seniors) were going to leave their mark. This solidifies what they’ve been to this program over their four years. We’re excited to extend our season at least another week and keep playing.”
In fact, Wheelersburg will get a rematch with Grandview Heights, as the Pirates bested the visiting Bobcats last season for the regional championship —in 2-1 come-from-behind fashion at Ed Miller Stadium.
Wednesday will mark the regional semifinal round —as the Bobcats and Pirates play at Zane Trace High School at 7 p.m.
And, just like their second chance at the Indians, these Pirates — albeit a different unit — probably won’t mind taking their best shots again against Grandview Heights.
“We’ve played really well lately, finding our groove, and peaking at the end of the season and into the tournament. We’ve played some of our best soccer over these three games,” said Estep. “We obviously have some issues with Grandview Heights from last year, but we’re excited and ready to move on to the regionals.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 2 0 —2
Valley 0 1 — 1
W — Braxton Rase (Jackson Schwamburger assist), 11:32, 1st (1-0 W)
W — Max Hagans (Jacob Saxby assist), 1:56, 1st (2-0 W)
V — Austin Sommers (Lucie Ashkettle assist), 14:45, 2nd (2-1 V)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved