Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
SARDINIA — In the midst of tears, hugs and comforting words on Tuesday, Eastern senior Bailey Dotson sported a smile.
The senior had just played the final soccer match of her career — a loss to Waynesville in a Division III state semifinal — and was starting to realize she’d never play another minute of high school soccer again.
But while the world seemed like it was crashing down around her and her teammates, for however brief of a moment, she smiled.
With many of her teammates shedding tears, Dotson couldn’t cry because her team’s historic tournament run was over. She was smiling because it happened in the first place.
Eastern added a new chapter to school history books this fall.
The Warriors won their first outright SHAC title since 2010, and then proceeded to win the program’s first-ever district and regional titles before ending their season at 16-2-2. They were one of Ohio’s final 12 teams left standing and the cream of the crop in the Southeast District.
That’s what Dotson’s smile was about. That’s why the senior’s heart was content in a somber moment.
“It still doesn’t seem real. It hasn’t hit me yet,” Dotson said. “Like, at [Monday’s] pep rally, I’m just looking at everyone and thinking, ‘Are we actually the team that did this?’ Like, our name is going to be on the [gymnasium] wall. It’s crazy. It’s just amazing to set a goal and to accomplish it. If we could’ve made it to the finals, that would’ve been great. But we had a great season.”
The Warriors’ story could’ve had multiple endings. But its start — and the reason they ended the season as one of the top four teams in the state — was a singular choice their five seniors made long ago.
“When we came in as freshmen, soccer wasn’t something big at our school,” senior Mary Litzinger said. “So that was one of our goals. We wanted to keep winning and keep winning to make it something big at our school. Now everyone comes together, comes to games and they cheer us on. It pushed us just a little bit more. The community around us has been amazing.”
So was the Warriors’ performance on the field.
Led by Dotson, Litzinger and fellow seniors Torie Utter, Skylar Gould and Emma Prine, Eastern outscored its opponents by a 79-28 margin. 15 of the 28 goals the team allowed came in two its two losses — against Highlands (Ky.) and Waynesville, who have a combined record of 29-11-1.
RELIVE EASTERN’S HISTORIC TOURNAMENT RUN
They were undefeated in the SHAC, finishing 4-0-1, and breezed through tournament play behind 22 goals in six games and a silencing defense.
But if you would’ve told the Warriors those numbers before the season started, at one time at least, they wouldn’t have believed it.
“At the beginning of the season, we were getting drilled,” Dotson said. “A lot of us were putting our heads down and thinking about how rough this year was going to be. Then we started winning. We just came together as a team. Everyone just fell in love with the game and we’ve had the funnest season ever. I love every single one of these girls.”
The senior class leaves behind a legacy of success. They finish their four-year careers with a mark of 58-16-6 and with an appearance in four consecutive district finals.
Those numbers tell the story. But the culture they’ve created paves the way for future stories to be written.
Junior Rylee Leonard knows that to be true. She’s had the chance to learn from her peers on the pitch and now has the burden of carrying on a winning tradition.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls,” Leonard said. “These girls have goals and they work hard, whether that’s basketball or soccer. In the barn. Anywhere. They just have a drive that’s carried throughout the whole team. I feel like that’s shown each day. [The state tournament] is where that mindset and that work ethic gets you.”
Leonard will be one of six returning starters next fall. She’s joined by Madi Belcher, McKinzie Dotson, Mackenzie Wiles, Emma Litzinger and keeper Alyssa Perkins.
So, to put it simply, there will be high expectations next season.
“We have a bunch of sophomores and juniors who are going to come back and they’re going to be very good,” Eastern coach Dan Silvis said. “I think that group has realized that not only is this team a good team, I think they’re looking into the future, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ That’s something that our entire program is thinking about. From junior high to high school.”
That doesn’t mean this year’s group of outgoing veterans won’t be missed or forgotten. After all, they’re the group that’s responsible for laying the foundation and trailblazing the path.
Their names and what they accomplished together will be talked about with generations to come. They’ve solidified themselves in school folklore.
“I’m not crying because we lost. I’m crying because it’s over,” Litzinger said after Tuesday’s state semifinal. “I don’t want it to be done. We’re just all a family. I love how we can come to each other and talk about anything. We have so much fun with each other. It’s just bittersweet.”