*Cover photo credit: Ruth Boll
John Bruce, Contributor
PORTSMOUTH — To finally knock off Clay this season, the Valley Indians knew they needed to score early.
By doing so at the 37-minute mark in the first half, sophomore Bryce Stuart did just that. Off a free kick from junior AJ Johnson, Stuart drilled home a header that was too hot to handle, giving the Indians an early 1-0 lead.
“We preached how important it was to get the lead early.” Valley head coach Andy Johnson said following the win. “It was big to be able to do that. I’m so proud of them, these kids fight so hard. It’s the best group I’ve ever had,”
The game was fairly even throughout the rest of the first half with both goalkeepers, Valley’s Wesley Holbrook and Clay’s Dakota Dodds, each making two outstanding saves to keep the game at 1-0 at the break.
In the second half, as a wet and sloppy field kept robbing players of their footing, it became obvious to all observers that the game could swing on any misplay of the ball.
With 27 minutes remaining, Valley’s Austin Sommers was the one to take advantage of one of those misplayed balls.
The sophomore stole possession around midfield after a slip, then raced down the left sideline, where he masterfully cut between defenders and buried a shot from outside the 18-yard line into the far corner of the net to put the Indians ahead 2-0.
Less than four minutes later, there was a series of plays that more or less sealed the game in the Indians’ favor.
Outstanding Clay senior Bryce Toomire was fouled in the box, leading to a penalty kick attempt. As Toomire stepped up to take the kick, it appeared the Panthers would be right back in the game. Toomire calmly struck a ball that stayed low and appeared to be heading to the right corner of the goal. However, Holbrook laid out to his left and made an outstanding save.
The save wouldn’t be the only part of that series that swung the momentum, because immediately on the other end, Cameron Phillips sent a cross from the right sideline into freshman Lucie Ashkettle, who found the back of the net on a nifty one-time goal to put the Indians up 3-0.
“That’s one where you don’t have real good percentages to save it, but Wesley [Holbrook] was able to save it. He was able to save us early on as well,” Johnson said about his junior goalkeeper. “He’s really solid back there, he’s quiet, but does a great job back there.”
Phillips, one of the Indians’ four seniors, would all but guarantee Valley’s third straight trip to the district tournament with a hustle goal at the 13-minute mark.
“I saw the defender coming in and I tried to angle myself to the ball, saw the keeper coming out and chipped it over him,” Phillips said.
Sommers finished the scoring in the final seconds on a free kick from just outside the 18 to produce the final score line of 5-0.
“[Sommers and Phillips] are our two scorers. We try to get them to push up and tonight, for both of them to get it, was huge. I’m just so proud of them all,” Johnson said.
Valley (8-7-3) will be back in action in a Division III district semifinal at 5 p.m., Saturday against Wheelersburg. Clay (10-5-2) finishes their season as the outright SOC I champion.
NOTES: Clay defeated Valley 1-0 last Tuesday at Valley … Phillips’ goal was his 40th career goal … Toomire ends his outstanding career with 63 career goals … Wheelersburg defeated Valley in both matches this year, 3-1 and 3-0.
Shots: Valley 19, Clay 11
Shots on Goal: Valley 11, Clay 5
Saves: Valley 5 (Holbrook 5), Clay 6 (Dodds 6)
Fouls: Valley 8, Clay 12
Corners Won: Valley 5, Clay 6
37:00 – V, Bryce Stuart (AJ Johnson)
27:00 – Austin Sommers
23:00 – Lucie Ashkettle (Cameron Phillips)
13:00 – Phillips (Johnson)
0:04 – Sommers