John Bruce, Staff Writer
KINNIKINNICK — During a summer camp, the Unioto Shermans were told that they weren’t a team capable of reaching the Final Four. Instead, they were told that the Elite Eight would be the furthest they could advance.
On Saturday, behind two Lucas Hanes goals and a sterling defensive effort, the Shermans proved that forecast incorrect.
“This year, we set a goal to get to the Final Four,” Hanes said. “These guys went to Ohio Wesleyan’s team camp this summer and [Ohio Wesleyan’s] coach told them that they weren’t a Final Four team. [Ohio Wesleyan] made that into a nice little poster and it said our final goal was the Elite Eight. We’ve looked at that every single practice and before every single game. Nobody put any thought into these kids being able to accomplish this. With the five seniors and the powerhouses that we have, we shut that talk down real quick.”
Unioto handed Athens a 2-1 loss in a Division II regional final at Zane Trace — its second win over the Bulldogs this season — to advance to the program’s first state semifinal since 2004.
The Shermans (16-3-2) become the first soccer program in Southeast Ohio to earn two trips to the final four.
“We had [Hanes] out wide and Athens had a marker on him all game long,” Unioto coach Brandon Hanes said. “We put him there and dropped River [Pettigrew] in the middle. We thought that would open some opportunities for River. But in the second half, we knew we couldn’t keep them there. As soon as we put Lucas back to where we’ve been putting him, I thought it changed everything. The pressure we got created momentum.”
Lucas Hanes was responsible for both of the Shermans’ goals, one in each half.
The sophomore superstar gave the Tanks a 1-0 lead at the 23:19 mark of the first half on an assist from River Pettigrew. Despite being outside the box, Hanes perfectly placed his shot below the bar and into the side netting for his 36th score of the fall.
The insurance goal Hanes added in the 2nd half came with 23:40 remaining, following a great lead pass from Kamden Smith. Upon receiving the pass, Hanes beat two defenders and ripped the strings with a low shot to put Unioto up 2-0.
While the Shermans had the advantage on the scoreboard in the first half, that would be about the only place on the pitch that they were better than the hungry Bulldogs. Athens (13-4-4) came out with better energy and execution, controlling possession and winning the majority of the 50-50 balls in the air.
Unioto would be on their heels throughout the first forty minutes, being outshot 8-1. But the defense of Ashton Sigler, Cameron Thompson, Joe Lafreniere and Asher McBee were up to the task, denying the Bulldogs’ any great looks at the goal.
Out of the eight shots, only two were on target, both of which were easily handled by Micah Geise. Sigler and Thompson each had outstanding individual efforts to stop an attack from the Bulldogs, while Lafreniere and McBee were steady throughout.
“We wouldn’t be here without the defense,” Hanes said. “There’s no way we’re winning that game or even getting to this point without them. If anybody was in the crowd today and they saw our defense, they know that’s one of our strongest traits. They don’t get enough credit.”
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, McBee was called for a trip in the box, which rewarded the Bulldogs with a golden opportunity from the penalty spot. Junior defender Owen Buckley would be called upon for the penalty kick to tie the match but he missed the shot high after putting immense pace on the ball, hitting the field goal crossbar behind the goal.
Coming out of the half, Unioto completely flipped the script and took over the game. Hanes continued to pressure the Bulldog defense thanks to great passing from Pettigrew and Smith. Antonio Cruz, Ricardo Arredondo, Cameron Kendrick and JC Stark started winning those 50-50 balls they were losing in the first stanza, which eased things for the Shermans’ backline.
The defense continued their impressive postseason, denying the Bulldogs from attempting a shot on target for the first 35 minutes of the second half. Geise reeled in his third save of the day on a begging shot from outside the box with five minutes to play.
The Bulldogs, however, broke through with 3:37 to play when Brady Jaunarajs came up with a loose ball and slotted his shot inside the left post to cut the deficit to 2-1. That shot would be the final shot of the game for Athens. The Bulldogs attempted to play long balls into the box, but Sigler and Thompson easily cleared the ball.
A final free kick from Sigler into the void of the Athens’ defensive third set off a wild celebration that had been 17 years in the making.
Unioto last reached a state semifinal in 2004, when Clifton Brown, Tyler Bryant and company fell 3-1 to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. This time around, the Shermans will get another shot at a Cincinnati school, when they battle the Wyoming Cowboys on Wednesday night at Teays Valley High School.
First touch is set for 7 p.m.
“Every year, we go watch DeSales, as a team. That’s the last four years that I’ve been here,” Hanes said. “We’ve watched what that level looks like. We’re getting ready to see a level like that. I don’t know how you prepare for this. It’s not going to be an easy task.”
Shots: Unioto 12, Athens 12
Shots on Goal: Unioto 7, Athens 4
Saves: Unioto 3 (Geise), Athens 5 (Kallet)
Fouls: Unioto 14, Athens 17
Offsides: Unioto 3, Athens 3