John Bruce, Contributor
KINNIKINNICK — They always say there’s a first time for everything and Saturday’s Division II district championship game was a perfect time for Unioto’s Antonio Cruz to experience a personal first.
With 33:49 remaining in the contest, Cruz scored his first career goal to put the Shermans ahead of Gallia Academy and secure their first district title since the 2004 season with a 3-1 victory.
Unioto (15-4) actually trailed the Blue Devils (15-2-2) at halftime, thanks to a picture perfect penalty kick from junior Brody Wilt with 25:24 to play in the opening half.
The Shermans started off sluggish, but came to life late in the first half when freshman Lucas Hanes went on a massive run through the Blue Devils’ defense before eventually hitting the crossbar with a rocket.
The run seemed to spark a mundane offense in the early going and gave them momentum going into the second half, despite being behind on the scoreboard.
Less than three minutes into the second 40-minute period, Hanes played a perfect pass through the Blue Devils’ defense to senior Ethan Kerns, who put in a crafty right-footed shot into the back of the net to tie the score. The young Shermans, who typically rely heavily on momentum, were able to continue the pressure on the Blue Devils, which led to Cruz’s heroics.
Cruz, a junior midfielder, was able to corral a rebound just outside of the 18-yard box and perfectly placed it over the top of the goalkeeper and hit it off the crossbar, where it careened down and just over the goal line by mere inches. The Blue Devils unsuccessfully argued that it didn’t cross the goal line and the Tanks began their celebration.
“I was just looking for an opening and took my shot,” Cruz said of his goal. “A lot of hard work paying off.”
Over the next several minutes, the Shermans continued their barrage on the goal, albeit without success. One particular sequence saw midfielder Joe Lafreniere drill a shot off the crossbar before Kerns immediately followed with one off the post. River Pettigrew, Hanes, and JC Stark maintained possession in the midfield, while Jayce Wingo and Ashton Sigler continuously won balls in the air for the defense.
The at times maligned outside backs of the Shermans, freshman Cameron Thompson and sophomore Ricardo Arrendondo, were fantastic throughout the match, controlling Blue Devil attacks the entire afternoon to limit their chances. Arredondo even had a non-goalie save when it appeared that Wilt would score another goal late in the match.
Asher McBee was once again tasked with marking the opponents’ best player, Wilt, and did a fantastic job on the junior, limiting him to only one shot in the run of play. Sophomore goalkeeper Micah Geise had a slightly shaky start, but quickly adjusted and made several outstanding plays on the day, keeping the high-scoring Blue Devils at bay.
With 5:04 left in the match, Kerns put the final stamp on the Shermans’ ticket to the regional tournament as he hit a crossfire shot to the far left post after racing to his right. The ball deflected off the post and into the back of the net for his 38th goal of the season, tying him for the second most in Unioto history.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” Kerns said with a huge smile on his face following the match. “It just feels so good to finally break through.”
When asked about how Cruz’s goal was similar to a Cameron DeBord shot in overtime of a sectional final last year that would have sent the Shermans to the districts, Kerns said, “It’s a bit of karma. Just a year later that eases the pain of that one a little bit.”
The Shermans will next travel to Alexander (16-1-1) to take on the Spartans on Wednesday evening in a Division II regional semifinal.
Alexander defeated Unioto 5-3 in a spirited match on Oct. 15, a game in which Unioto led 2-0 in the second half. Unioto is actually 3-2 all-time in the regionals, including 1-0 versus Alexander at that level. This was the Shermans’ third district championship and the first since 2004, when they were the last Southeast District boys team to advance to the Final Four.