Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — If you were in the stands at Logan High School way back on Oct. 26, 2017, you saw Sydney Free make a name for herself in an unforgettable way.
Midway through the second half of a Division II district semifinal against top-seeded, undefeated Fairfield Union, Free — Unioto’s freshman goalkeeper at the time — made four saves at point blank range … one after the other, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd with each.
The career-defining sequence helped preserve a 1-0 win over the Falcons, a victory that eventually led to the first of two consecutive district titles.
To this day, Free still credits that series of events as her favorite soccer memory.
“We were the lower-ranked team in that game, and we came into that game ready to prove that we were the better team,” Free said. “I think that game, for me, was when I finally felt like I had a big contribution to the team. My defense had been strong all season with [defender] Montana Myers leading us. But during that game, I had game-saving plays that made me feel like I was a part of getting the team to a district championship.”
That’s an understatement.
As a freshman, Free held opponents to a total of eight goals. The Shermans posted 10 consecutive shutouts … still the fifth-longest streak of zeroes in OHSAA history. Last fall wasn’t much different as Free aided Unioto to a 15-2-3 finish, and a second straight district crown.
“Winning those district titles was such an amazing experience, and neither one came easy. When it’s cold and raining, as it has been the past two years, it really comes down to the mental toughness of the team,” Free said. “All the work we put in has paid off when it mattered.”
That’s why Free continues to work as hard as she does to perfect her particular craft.
“I’ve been working at making myself better since the fourth grade when I began conditioning with the high school team,” Free said. “When I was younger, I always looked up to the goalkeepers at Unioto like Ashley Flautt, Izzy Timmons, and Savannah Vanhoose. Izzy was actually the first person to help me develop my skills, as well as Waverly coach Chris Murphy and [Unioto coach] Jeremy Clark. I’ve continued to train by playing soccer all year on competitive teams, and specifically working on my goalkeeping twice a week.”
That’s a good sign for the Shermans, who have an extremely competitive schedule on tap.
This fall’s slate includes trips to Bexley, Gahanna Lincoln, Marietta, New Albany, Logan and Central Crossing alongside home dates with Fairfield Union, Waverly, Jackson and Alexander.
But this isn’t Free’s first rodeo. She’s been through a similar gauntlet before.
“Our schedule this season is not a joke, but we think it will pay off in the long run. Getting exposed to a high level of D-I and D-II competition will help us grow as a team,” Free said. “I think that dealing with the adversity we will face during the regular season and overcoming those obstacles will get us ready for a long tournament run.”
While Free and her teammates take adversity head on, they’ll have to do so with new faces trying to fill big shoes after last year’s senior class graduated.
That won’t be an easy task. But it is a task in which Free has confidence in her teammates to mark off the to-do list.
“We really will miss that group of seniors. The leadership and talent of McKayla, Elayna, Acacia, Jayla and Morgan helped us achieve all that we did last season,” Free said. “But we have quite a few freshmen and sophomores that have worked hard this summer and are ready to step up and take their places in the starting lineup.”
At this point, the Free name is a fixture in the Shermans’ starting lineup, and even when she graduates, that shouldn’t change.
Sydney’s younger sister Maya, currently a middle schooler, acts as her understudy.
“I try to teach Maya to be fearless and disciplined. When you are a goalkeeper, you cannot afford to be afraid of getting hurt or beat by going out and challenging an attacking player,” Free said. “She also needs to know that soccer takes everyone on the field training hard off the field in order to be successful. You are only going to earn the respect of your teammates if you are doing your part to improve your game.”
The eldest Free and Unioto begins their season Aug. 20, hosting Hillsboro.
“We all know that records in the past two seasons don’t mean anything for this season,” Free said. “We are coming into this year prepared, and we know that we haven’t earned anything yet.”