John Bruce, Staff Writer
WAVERLY — It may have taken Wheelersburg a little while to get going on Saturday, but once that happened, the Pirates were able to avenge a win and earn a second consecutive district title.
After losing 3-0 to Valley early in the season, the Pirates (15-3) were hungry for revenge and earned a 2-1 win — fighting off the Indians in the final minutes — to move into the Sweet 16.
“It was early in the season and we didn’t feel like we weren’t fully there when we went to [Valley’s] place,” Wheelersburg keeper Gavin Rase said. “But we’ve known this entire playoff run that if we wanted to go anywhere like we did last year, we had to go through [Valley]. It’s a little bit sweet to get them.”
Senior Braxton Rase broke a scoreless tie late in the first half and sophomore Max Hagans lit the lamp with a beautiful goal right before halftime to give the Pirates a comfortable 2-0 lead.
The lead was possible due to the outstanding play of their young, but talented backline.
Senior Preslee Etterling anchors the Pirates’ defense, but juniors Nolan Wright and Gavin Bradley, along with freshman Miller McKenzie, gave the Pirates a nice mix of speed, skill and intelligence that massively slowed down Valley’s impressive offensive attack.
For the opening 28 minutes, neither team was able to create much of anything on the offensive end. But with 11:32 to play in the first half, Jackson Schwamburger was able to squeeze a pass through the Indians’ backline, where Rase outran his defender and slotted a low shot into the corner to put the Pirates on top.
Valley (16-2-1) began to get their feel for the game with Bryce Stuart, Lucie Ashkettle and Austin Sommers beginning to put pressure on the Pirates’ defense. However, they weren’t able to attempt as much as a single shot in the half, due to the Pirates’ swarming backline.
Late in the first half, Wheelersburg’s Jacob Saxby attacked down the Indians’ right wing, sending a low, hard cross around the six-yard box. Hagans made a mad dash to the spot and finished it with a crisp, diving header to push the Pirates lead to 2-0 heading into the break.
“I was running down the field and saw [Saxby] take it into the corner,” Hagans said. “I knew he was going to play the ball in the air. So I just cut in front of the [defender’s face], I saw it coming and I just had to score.”
In the second half, Valley’s attack came alive, adding pressure on the Pirates that would last through the final seconds.
Wheelersburg’s Gavin Rase picked up his first two saves of the match on shots from distance, however it was Connor Estep who made the defensive play of the day with 23 minutes left to play.
Rase went to clear a ball from outside of the box, but the clearance would be picked off by the Indians. Valley made a couple of quick passes and, as a low cross came in, Estep, the sophomore stopper, swooped in and cleared the ball from the six-yard box to keep the Indians off the scoreboard.
Valley got on the board with 14:45 to play when Austin Sommers ripped a rocket from 25 yards out of the goal, which knuckled away from Rase to give the Indians life.
Wheelersburg knew it had to be prepared for everything the Indians had left over those final 14 minutes.
Valley’s best scoring chance during that time came around a minute remaining when Stuart drilled a low shot from 20 yards out that Rase sprawled to his right to parry away, finishing off a district championship win for the Pirates.
Wheelersburg will now face Grandview Heights in a rematch of last season’s regional title game — one the Pirates won by a 2-1 final.
That game will be at 7 p.m., Wednesday (11/3) at Zane Trace High School.
“Since we lost eight seniors last year, everyone thought we’d be nothing compared to last year’s team,” Hagans said. “I knew we had it in us. We just had to put in that work. We came out with intensity and energy. That gave us that push.”
11:32 – W – Braxton Rase (17th), assist to Jackson Schwamburger (19th)
1:56 – W – Max Hagans (25th), assists to Jacob Saxby (6th)
14:45 – V – Austin Sommers (30th), assist to Lucie Ashkettle (8th)
Shots: Wheelersburg 10, Valley 7
Shots on Goal: Wheelersburg 7, Valley 5
Saves: Wheelersburg 4 (G. Rase), Valley 5 (Chris Queen)
Fouls: Wheelersburg 14, Valley 21
Corners Won: Wheelersburg 2, Valley 6