John Bruce, Contributor
WHEELERSBURG — After not playing soccer for the last two years, Wheelersburg’s Braxton Sammons decided to come back out for his junior season. For coach Jon Estep and his Pirates, that was the best decision possible.
Sammons scored two goals, within six minutes of each other, in the second half of Saturday’s Division III regional final to push the Pirates into the Final Four for the first time in school history with a 2-1 victory over Grandview Heights.
“I just want to thank the coaches and the players for letting me come back in and accepting me right away,” Sammons said following his career game. “I’ll play in any big game … it’s just the mindset.”
While Sammons was able to be the goal-scoring hero, he was not alone in his heroics.
Goalkeeper Eric Green tallied seven saves, and he wasn’t alone in the saves category. Junior defenders Preslee Etterling and Josh Boggs each made a non-goalie save that kept the Pirates in the game.
“Those guys on the outside, Preslee, Josh, Aiden Wright, and Carter McCorkle, along with Logan Davis, who has been a four-year starter for us, have been phenomenal all year long,” Estep said. “They have tied a school record for shutouts. We’ve tied a record for consecutive wins and it’s because of those guys. They are our backbone, 21 games and only eight goals allowed is unreal.”
The Pirates nearly started things off with a bang less than a minute into the contest when Southeast District Player of the Year Aaron Jolly got free and ripped a left-footed shot that Bobcats goalie Owen Carter was able to push wide. That would not be something that would continue throughout the half as the Pirates only put one more shot on target.
Grandview Heights (13-4-4) came into the match unbeaten in their previous 11 games, while only giving up a single goal in the last five outings. The Bobcats came out with a quiet confidence and excellent ball movement to control much of the first half. Runs by Kai Iisaka, Will DeVere, and Adam Bechtel put pressure on the Pirates’ backline, but the defense was more than up to the task. Green was able to force multiple balls wide, while also cutting down a lot of crosses by the Bobcats as well, something that he knew was coming.
“We saw some of their games and we knew that they were going to try to play it right on the edge of the six-yard box,” Green discussed of their scouting report. “Our coaches did a heck of a job of scouting them for us. I was able to cheat off my post a little bit as well.”
The Bobcats were able to get multiple corner kicks, and with 1:51 remaining in the half, Gunnar Szynal sent in a perfect left-footed bender towards the six-yard box and found Connor Hayes, who headed the ball into the back of the net to put the Bobcats ahead at the half, 1-0.
Heading into the half, Grandview had outshot and outpaced the Pirates throughout the first 40 minutes. But a couple of slight changes paid huge dividends for the black and orange.
Estep switched Jolly from his normal striker position to more of a midfield role and placed Sammons up front. Doing this would open things up a bit more for each player, forcing the Bobcats’ hand on how they wanted to defend Jolly.
“With how special Aaron [Jolly] is, we knew that teams would try to take him away, and while they didn’t man mark him, they always had someone right with him.” Estep said, explaining his halftime adjustment. “We wanted to move him around and let him get more touches and be a playmaker for other people.”
The move worked almost immediately as Sammons would score his first goal with 33:08 remaining on a beautiful pass from Jolly. Jolly found the ball at his feet near midfield and pushed towards the Bobcat backline before sending a smooth pass between two defenders and left it to a footrace between Sammons and Carter on who would get the first touch. Sammons would beat the goalie by a millisecond and tap the ball underneath Carter’s outstretched body to tie the score and give the Pirates a ton of momentum.
Sammons then hit his game-winner with 27:03 to play on a corner kick play designed for Jolly.
“It’s a play that we haven’t ran very well in practice … ever,” Estep mentioned about the corner kick play. “But to execute that play and put it on frame made this place erupt and I’m sure all of Wheelersburg heard it.”
The play gives Jolly the choice between a shot of his own or a pass outside for a teammate to shoot. Needless to say, the senior made the right choice in finding Sammons at the top of the box. Sammons took the pass around 20 yards away from the goal and blasted a shot into the right side of the net to put the Pirates in front for the first time.
The Bobcats didn’t go down without a fight, but were unable to find the net, largely in part to Green’s excellence in the goal, but also a massive play by Josh Boggs.
With around 10 minutes to play, DeVere found some space and send a cross that Bechtel nearly backheeled into the goal. But Green was able to get a fingertip on it to force it off the post. The ball trickled out to Iisaka, who struck a shot towards a wide open net. But Boggs was able to put his body, and head, on the line to save the lead for the Pirates.
“To watch Josh [Boggs] save that goal in the second half, was just like him,” Estep said of his hulking left back. “He’s all heart and brings a lot of toughness to this. He’s very unselfish as him and Aiden Wright split time and never complain. We went with Josh the whole second half and it just hit his head square and went out. That’s just the heart of this team.”
Following Boggs’ save, the Pirates were able to fend off all advances by Grandview and deny them any other shots to advance to their first ever state tournament — solidifying themselves as one of the Southeast’s premier soccer programs.
“We talked about it before we came out at halftime, that this was a moment that they would remember for the rest of their lives.” Estep added. “The support we have from alumni and the community is unreal. This is huge for our program to do something that the football, volleyball and baseball programs have done recently. Now we can say that soccer can join that exclusive club and it’s unreal.”
The Pirates (21-0-0) will now play in a Division III state semifinal against Cincinnati Mariemont at 7 p.m., Wednesday at Springfield High School.
Mariemont will be playing in only its second state tournament, and the winner will advance to their first state championship game in school history.
NOTES: This was the 7th Regional appearance for Wheelersburg, but only their 2nd appearance in the Regional finals … Jolly now has 48 goals and 22 assists on the season … Grandview Heights was looking for their 4th regional championship in the past 7 seasons … Alexander defeated Dover 3-2 in Division II, giving the Southeast District two regional champions for the first time ever … Wheelersburg and Alexander now join Unioto (2004) and Valley (1998) as Southeast teams to advance to the Final Four.
|10||Shots on Goal||6|
|4 (Carter 4)||Saves||9 (Green 7, Etterling 1, Boggs 1)|