A mere 90 seconds into Hiland’s regional semifinal boys Div. III soccer game with South Webster, Brayden Gray broke loose and found the back of the net for a goal.
The next 78 minutes and 30 seconds would pass by with neither team able to produce a score, and the Hawks survived a gigantic second-half onslaught by the Jeeps to record a thrilling 1-0 victory that boosted them into the regional final, where they will now face Grandview Heights (15-2-3), which defeated Columbus Wellington School (14-5-1) 7-2.
While rain pelted the players through the 80-minute contest on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at Marietta College, it would be the Jeeps who would be raining down shots on the Hawks throughout the second half. It appeared as though South Webster, which had won 19 straight games after losing its season opener, realized their season was on the line after the teams came out of the locker room at the intermission.
Over the first nine minutes of the second half, the Jeeps inundated Hiland’s goal with shots, but Hiland’s defense, led by keeper Brant Klink, who was all over the box, was like a wall, preventing the equalizer.
Head coach Scott Bodiker said out of South Webster’s 20 games they had scored two goals in two of them, three in another and four or more in every other game. That adds up to an offensive juggernaut.
“They are prolific offensively, and for us to be able to hold them scoreless is a tremendous testament to our defense,” Bodiker said. “They are as strong as any team we have faced this year. They are as skilled as us, only bigger, stronger and faster.”
They also are headed home, and the Hawks are headed on, and the defense can rest well knowing it made that happen.
Gray spotted the Hawks the early lead before some fans had even settled into their soaking wet seats, and for much of the first half Hiland held possession and kept the pressure on South Webster. After getting a pass from Declan Howell well outside the box, Gray fired off a long shot that keeper Tanner Voiers couldn’t corral off the wet-turf skip as it snuck by him and into the net.
“We got a fortuitous goal and were able to get on top, and they are not a team that is used to coming from behind,” Bodiker said.
While both teams generated some opportunities throughout the first 20 minutes of play, neither team got any really good looks at adding points on the board. Each team created some dangerous chances, but neither seemed able to get anything to the point where a player could drive a shot home.
With 18:30 left in the half, Pat Miller fired off a shot that was stopped by Voiers. In the 25th minute Gray just missed wide right, and moments later Pat Miller got off a good shot after a direct kick, but Voiers made that play too.
With eight minutes left in the half, Howell fired a sizzler that got knocked over the top by Voiers, and South Webster got a great look with just over three minutes left on a direct kick from in between the circles, but senior defender Lakota Mast was able to head that dangerous lob pass into the scrum in front of the Hawks’ net away.
With two minutes to play, South Webster’s Shiloah Blevins zeroed in and drilled a shot that soared just wide of his intended mark, and the two teams went into the locker room with the score in favor of Hiland 1-0.
The Jeeps, who had trailed only one time this season, came out with a sense of urgency in the second half, and the first nine minutes Hiland was in survival mode as the Jeeps attacked.
Klink was forced to make a pair of sliding saves, and South Webster created four good scoring chances in the first four minutes of second-half play.
After nine minutes of defending its turf, Hiland finally seemed to get some balance and started moving the ball into Jeeps territory. Tyler Schmucker had a nice look but couldn’t convert, sending his shot wide, and Gray followed that up with another shot that was stopped.
In the 53rd minute Hiland got a scare when a ball came into the box in dangerous territory, but Chris Miller cleared it, barely. Klink was forced to make two more saves near the 60th minute, and in the 66th minute Klink tipped a Gabe Ruth shot over the top, a ball that just went over the bar and settled on top of the net.
The final 20 minutes would be much like the first nine of the second half, where the Hawks would be forced to fend off a stunning Jeeps’ attack. With 11 minutes to play, Blevins got loose and scorched toward the goal with possession, but Klink charged hard, slid and knocked the ball away, averting what could have been a terrific scoring chance.
With nine minutes to play, Gavin Bennett chipped a shot just over the top of the bar on a long lob kick. The Hawks were able to gain possession, and after Taylor Mullet was tripped up, Hiland’s direct kick went into the box, where Howell’s header was knocked away by Voiers.
The frantic final four minutes of play saw South Webster trying desperately to cross passes into the box, but each time they did a Hawks’ defender would step in and drive it away, first from Genaro Gomez, then from Gray, then Klink. With under two minutes to play, Lakota Mast made a beautiful slide tackle to avert a scoring chance, and as time began winding down, Jacob Ruth’s direct kick was turned away by Hiland defender Ross Hershberger. With under 20 seconds the Jeeps had one final shot at finding the equalizer, but their throw in toward the box was expertly knocked away by Gomez, and the Hawks had survived a second-half onslaught to move ahead to the regional finals.
“That whole second half was a bit of helter-skelter for us,” Bodiker said. “In the end they got close, but we didn’t break. Brant had to make a lot of stops on long, skipping shots, which he is good at, and for all of the beating we took from them on goal, we did a good job of keeping them out of the box and not giving them very many really good looks from in close.”
Bodiker said this game of attrition in a torrential downpour was between two teams that both felt they had very legitimate chances of making it to the state tournament. While the Hawks have played a ton of close games this season, South Webster has not, and Bodiker felt that gave his team a bit of an edge.
“I think there was a great deal of pressure on both teams because we both felt like this could be a year to take that next step to state,” Bodiker said. “The Hawks have been a perennial challenger for state, but the program has yet to break through. This game leaves them one win away from that goal.”
Hiland had been at regionals in 15 out of 18 years being led by Bodiker until a rash of three disappointing losses at districts left them hungry for more the past three years. Getting back to regionals is something he said they will not take for granted.
“It feels a bit like we are back home after losing in districts the last few years,” Bodiker said. “Now hopefully we can get the one that finally takes us to state.”