John Bruce, Contributor
WHEELERSBURG — In every heavyweight boxing match, you never know when the knockout blow will come … and if Wheelersburg vs. Unioto was billed as a heavyweight fight, it took until the 12th round for it to occur.
The Pirates (15-0) scored two goals in the last seven minutes on Monday to earn a come-from-behind victory over the talented Shermans (12-3).
The marquee matchup wasn’t just between two elite teams, but also two elite scorers and two elite defenses. Outside of the final 20 minutes, that matchup was truly just between the elite defenses.
Unioto decided to go against their normal defensive game plan and had junior Asher McBee man-mark (or spy) Wheelersburg’s superstar senior Aaron Jolly. McBee, normally a midfielder, did an outstanding job the entire night on Jolly. Along with fellow defenders Jayce Wingo and Ashton Sigler, they kept the Pirates at bay for the majority of the first 73 minutes of the match.
Jolly, who came into the game with 33 goals and over 100 for his career, was able to take advantage of some miscommunication on a free kick with 17:09 left in the first half to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead in what was their first shot of the game. Besides that, the crafty senior was not really able to get free, instead just biding his time for that elusive knockout blow.
Wheelersburg, who had only given up four goals in 14 matches, played its normal defense against Ethan Kerns, Lucas Hanes, and River Pettigrew of the Shermans. The Pirates’ defense frustrated the Shermans’ strikers with smart defending for the majority of the evening. Right back Preslee Etterling was a standout throughout the night, while Carter McCorkle, Logan Davis, and Josh Boggs were steady throughout as well.
While defense was the name of the game for the first three quarters of the night, each goalkeeper also held up their end of the bargain to keep their squads in the match. Unioto’s Micah Geise (8 saves) and Wheelersburg’s Eric Green (9 saves) each made multiple outstanding saves to keep the score low, while also taking charge of their backlines as well.
As the second half reached the 20-minute mark, Kerns started to make noise for the Sherman attack. The senior beat his defender and blistered a shot that Green was just able to parry wide of the net, setting up a corner kick for the Tanks. Freshman Lucas Hanes would take the corner and find Wingo, who drilled a header into the back of the net to tie the match with 19:12 to play.
The Shermans then rode that momentum and struck again less than four minutes later to take a 2-1 lead. Kerns again beat his defender and let loose a rocket that Green was able to punch away, but it would find Kerns’ feet. Kerns then settled the ball and fired another shot, this one ricocheting off of a Pirate defender to give the Shermans their lead.
Jolly, who has played club soccer with Kerns, decided that it was time to one-up his old friend and turn the heat up on the Shermans’ defense. With 6:41 to play, Jolly took a pass from Jacob Saxby and used a crafty move to create space and get, eventually, a one-on-one with Geise … which Jolly calmly put into the right corner to tie the match.
The intensity reached a fever pitch as both teams pushed for the winning goal. However, it was a bad bounce that ultimately set up the knockout blow.
A deflected ball went into the box, where a Unioto defender looked to chest the ball down to control it, but the spin took the ball into the defender’s hand, which resulted in a hand ball called with 2:24 left to play.
When it was winning time and Aaron Jolly with the ball at the penalty spot, almost everyone in Ed Miller Stadium knew that it was game, set, match. Jolly, as he’s done throughout his career, picked his spot and smoked his penalty kick into the net to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead and eventual victory.
The Shermans actually outshot the Pirates 15-14, with both teams having 11 shots on goal. Each team was called for 15 fouls in a physical matchup, with each team being booked once.
Wheelersburg, which earned the No. 1 seed in Division III, will conclude its regular season at Minford on Thursday night. The Pirates will look to complete a perfect 16-0-0 season.
Unioto, which earned the No. 2 seed in Division II, will conclude its regular season on Thursday as it hosts the No. 1 seed in Division II, Alexander. The Shermans’ 12 wins is their most since the 2014 season.