John Bruce, Contributor
CHILLICOTHE — On a night where any slip could turn disastrous, the Unioto Shermans found their footing and punched their ticket to Saturday’s Division II district title game.
With two goals coming off of restarts, Unioto (15-3-1) was able to get on the board despite less than favorable field conditions and held off a hard-charging Marietta (12-4-1) offense to reach their third district championship game in the past four seasons.
After a foul was called outside of the Tigers’ penalty box, Unioto senior Brandy Robinson stepped up and scored on a beautiful free kick from 20 yards out with 24:54 left in the first half. Robinson has been outstanding on free kicks this season and calmly placed her shot into the left upper corner of the goal to give the Shermans an early 1-0 lead.
That lead would hold up throughout the first half, thanks in part to the Shermans’ stellar backline and also a spectacular effort from junior midfielder Gracie Heath.
“That was a key,” Unioto coach Jeremy Clark said of Heath. “When she’s able to move forward, it frees up the rest of the midfield and that was big tonight.”
With Heath’s added activity, it allowed Avery Miller and Robinson to play their midfield roles to perfection, which limited the Tigers’ ability to move the ball with any consistency. The Shermans’ short passing game was still efficient, despite standing water in parts of the field.
“We talk passing to feet, which makes the difference on a night like this with the fast surface,” Clark added. “They tried to go long into space and we were able to defend that.”
And defending is what the Shermans do best.
Juniors Jaidyn McKell and Arielle Pelletier, along with seniors Allie Cox and Abi Seals, were steadfast in their communication and teamwork to keep Marietta’s attack at a comfortable distance from the goal. The only shot of the first half for the Tigers was easily corralled by Unioto GK Sydney Free.
“Just leadership back there,” Clark mentioned about his defense. “Just being together forever through club soccer and here, just makes them a very strong unit.”
On most nights, the Unioto faithful would be extremely comfortable with a 1-0 halftime lead, but this wasn’t most nights. With the wet conditions, it made anything possible and the Tanks would have to up their energy in the second half to keep moving forward down the tournament trail.
That energy would come out in droves to start the half, with Pelletier and Seals each making serious runs out of the defense and down the sideline to put the Tigers’ defense on its heels. An Emily Hanes pass back to Miller would lead to a deflected shot that set up a corner kick.
As she did against Hillsboro in the sectional finals, sophomore Ashtyn Miller made the Tigers pay on her corner. The lefty would bend her kick over the goalkeeper and it would deflect off a defender into the back of the net with 31:28 to play, putting the Shermans ahead 2-0.
The intensity of the rain continued to grow as time ran down, which led to Marietta’s best chance and only score of the night.
A Marietta cross was deflected by a Unioto defender and into Free’s waiting arms. After some discussion, it was determined that it was an intentional pass back, which led to an indirect kick inside Unioto’s penalty box. The kick was taken and hit off the Shermans’ wall and over the goal line with 11:25 to play, cutting the lead to 2-1.
Over the waning minutes of the match, Unioto put on a clinic on how to hold onto a lead late in a contest.
Consistently keeping Marietta nearly 30 yards away from the goal, while also shielding and protecting the ball when they had possession, the Tanks were able to wind the clock down. The Tigers were only able to get one more attempt, but Free tracked it down with ease to close out the victory for the Shermans.
Unioto is back in action at noon, Saturday at Piketon High School in a Division II district championship game. There, they’ll meet the No. 4 seed Warren (12-3-4). The Warriors defeated No. 1 seed Fairfield Union in a PK shootout to earn their trip to the title game.