John Bruce, Contributor
PIKETON — After coming up short of their personal expectations in 2019, Unioto’s girls put in even more work to reach their lofty goals in 2020.
On Saturday, their hard work paid off as they captured their third district championship in four seasons with a 1-0 overtime victory over a very game Warren team.
“My teammates and I have put in countless hours into getting where we are today,” senior goalkeeper Sydney Free said after the win. “We’ve all worked hard and made sacrifices, but going home with the district championship shows us that hard work really does pay off.”
It may have taken more than the customary 80 minutes for the Shermans to take home the gold, but that just made the payoff even better for the Tanks.
After Unioto controlled the majority of regulation, coach Jeremy Clark made a risky, but bold decision: to move Jaidyn McKell from her normal center back position to be more involved in the offensive attack. The move meant that the typically strong four back defense of the Shermans went to a three back one, although, having Allie Cox, Abi Seals, and Arrielle Pelletier were up to the task and kept the shutout going.
Clark’s move ultimately paid off with 11:18 left in the first overtime when McKell played a perfect through ball for senior Emily Hanes, who calmly blasted the ball past Warren’s Millie Ryan for a golden goal and district championship.
“It’s a feeling that I’ve never felt before,” Hanes said following her championship goal. “I remember watching McKayla [Thompson] do that [in Unioto’s last district title win, also in overtime] and that was amazing, but I wasn’t in that play. So it was crazy to do it myself.”
Throughout the afternoon, Unioto (16-3-1) appeared to be in control, but were unable to beat Ryan in goal. Ryan, a senior, made several outstanding stops and reads to eliminate a lot of chances for the Shermans. Brandy Robinson, Ashtyn Miller, and Autumn Stanger continuously pushed forward on the Warrior backline and put shots on Ryan from distance, while Avery Miller and Gracie Heath controlled the midfield.
Warren (12-4-4) was able to make multiple pushes upfield with Payton Alloway and Macie Smith, but the Shermans were up to the task throughout the game, despite some injuries that appeared like they would limit multiple defenders.
“I have so much admiration for my defense,” Free said of Seals, Cox, Pelletier, and McKell. “They have battled injuries throughout the year, but they continue to give it their all and are a major reason why we are able to be so successful as a team.”
Free, who ended the game with three saves, was able to notch her 36th career shutout, including the 11th on the season. The senior keeper may not have been pushed often, but was still able to display her amazing spatial knowledge on a deep shot by the Warriors’ Taylor Sloan that appeared like it would just beat her.
However, Free eased back to the goal line and calmly watched it go over the top, all the while both crowds seemed to think it was going in.
Hanes, who came off the bench for the past three seasons, was thrust into a major role for the Shermans in her senior year and it all happened because of her offseason work.
“It’s awesome, because I made something of myself this season. I put in so much work and having it pay off is so nice,” Hanes said.
The Tanks outshot the Warriors 18-5, with nine being on target versus only three for Warren. A lot of that credit goes to the aggressiveness offensively of Robinson and the Miller’s and the defense, which has been sterling throughout the season for the Shermans.
“Our defensive line all connects with each other,” senior center back Allie Cox said. “We work well together and then our speed and passing, plus having Syd back there makes it phenomenal.”
For Unioto, it was their fourth district championship in only 13 seasons as a varsity program. And Hanes joins a fantastic list of golden goal heroes for the Shermans, including Thompson [2018 district finals] and Jenny Campbell [2010 regional semifinals].
The Tanks will next be in action on Tuesday night, as they host the #2 Granville Blue Aces (16-0-2) in a Division II regional semifinal. Unioto has scrimmaged Granville as recently as last season, so they’ll know what to expect from the Licking County juggernaut, but also won’t be intimidated.
“They’ll come at us hard and we will have to be on our game, but we will be ready,” Hanes said.
If there’s anything that we know about the Shermans, it’s that they’ll be ready and play all out for 80 (and sometimes more) minutes.