John Bruce, Contributor
CHILLICOTHE — After falling to Alexander in each of their previous five meetings, the Unioto Shermans knew that they needed to make a change if they wanted a return trip to a district championship game.
And by relying heavily on their defense, and a couple of unsung heroes, the Shermans did just enough to earn a 1-0 victory on Tuesday night in a Division II district semifinal to claim revenge and advance.
Alexander (13-3-2) was headlined by the two-headed monster of Kyler D’Augustino and Parker Bolin, who had combined for 54 of the Spartans’ 74 goals on the season.
Unioto coach Brandon Hanes decided to focus his defensive game plan on eliminating Bolin’s ability to make things happen out of his midfield position. To eliminate the monstrous midfielder, Hanes deployed a pair of seniors in Antonio Cruz and Cameron Kendrick to track and make Bolin.
With a focus on the defensive end, Hanes made more changes that helped slow down the dynamic Spartan attack. Junior Ricardo Arredondo was inserted into the defensive backfield, pushing Asher McBee to the midfield, but still with a heavy defensive positioning.
Senior Joe Lafreniere was tasked with tracking D’Augustino, virtually eliminating the 6-foot-3 striker, limiting him to only two deep shot attempts on the night. Center backs Cameron Thompson and Ashton Sigler were dominant defensively, keeping the Spartans to the outside and away from great scoring opportunities.
Unioto (13-3-2) was actually unable to get a shot on target for the opening 35 minutes, but scoring threats Lucas Hanes, River Pettigrew, McBee and Kamden Smith were still putting pressure on the excellent Alexander defense. The Spartans did put six shots up before the Shermans fired one of their own, but all were from distance, making it easy for Shermans goalkeeper Micah Geise to handle.
Over the final five minutes of the half, the Tanks were finally able to get something going.
JC Stark fired a rocket from just outside the box that the Spartans’ Landon Ding was unable to handle, which went to a charging Hanes. Hanes put a left-footed shot at a seemingly open goal, but big Jace Ervin would make a non-goalie save to — temporarily — keep the game scoreless.
With 2:26 remaining in the half, Hanes accepted a pass from Pettigrew and appeared like he was going to attack the goal, but wisely played it off to Smith inside the box. Smith smoothly placed a shot past the diving Ding to give the Shermans a 1-0 lead, which would ultimately be the game-winner.
The Shermans nearly struck again within the first five minutes of the second half, but Smith was ruled to be offside. This would not be the final time that a goal was taken off the board for a player being in the offside position.
Alexander was unable to mount much of an attack through the field play, but the Spartans had an absurd weapon anytime the ball would go out of bounds for a throw-in. Ervin would routinely throw the ball to the opposite side of the goal with ease, giving the bigger Spartans an advantage in the air over the Tanks. The Shermans were able to counteract that attack by utilizing Kendrick, Sigler and McBee in marking situations to limit the effect of Ervin’s throws, which had led to the deciding goal when the teams played in the regular season.
The Spartans had two great chances to score in the game’s final 20 minutes. The first came as Bolin was able to use his size advantage to get a defender on his back inside the penalty box.
He shoulder faked and turned to his right and let off a wicked shot that loudly clanged off the crossbar before falling harmlessly into the arms of Geise. The second chance came with eight minutes left when Dylan Allison ripped a shot that was flying towards the upper portion of the goal. But Geise rose up and made a spectacular save to maintain the shutout.
Over the next few minutes, Unioto’s seniors displayed elite game management, with Lafreniere and McBee teaming up to wipe out multiple minutes of time by cornering the ball and maintaining possession over 100 yards away from their goal. It appeared that the game would end without drama, but it wouldn’t be a soccer match without a little extra draw.
Now back to those offsides calls.
With time running out, Stark sent a ball ahead for Hanes who was able to beat Ding to put the game away with only 21 seconds remaining in the match, which led to a big celebration for the majority of the Shermans.
However, the side official had his flag raised to signal that Hanes was offside, which the Spartans nearly took advantage of when they quickly sent the ball ahead to D’Augustino. The junior found Bolin just past the Shermans’ backline, where the senior beat a diving Geise with 13 seconds left to apparently tie the game.
But, the other side official had his flag up to signal that Bolin was offside, thus negating the game-tying score and sending the Shermans into the winner’s circle.
Geise and his defense combined to pitch their ninth shutout of the season. The Tanks backline is allowing less than a goal a game and have only allowed three goals over their last 10 outings.
The Shermans had previously lost to Alexander by a 2-1 final, and will now face another team that defeated them in the regular season — the 16-0-2 Marietta Tigers.
In their previous meeting with Marietta, neither Cruz or Pettigrew were available, which helped lead to a 4-2 win for the Tigers.
That rematch will take place in a Division II district final at 5 p.m., Thursday at Zane Trace.
2:26 – U – Kamden Smith (12th), assist Lucas Hanes (18th)
Shots: Unioto 9, Alexander 10
Shots on Goal: Unioto 4, Alexander 6
Saves: Unioto 6 (Geise), Alexander 3 (Ding 2, Ervin 1)
Fouls: Unioto 9, Alexander 19
Corners Won: Unioto 1, Alexander 2
Offsides: Unioto 4, Alexander 2