“Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.”
That quote, attributed to Major League Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez, does a pretty fair job of summing up Hiland’s victory over Steubenville Catholic Central in the two team’s Div. III Sectional final at Hiland High School Thursday, Oct. 22.
Hiland won the game 2-1 in overtime, and while play was fairly even in the to-and-fro contest most of the night, it was SCC which left the field wondering why they are so unfortunate that they would rip four shots off the cross bar without tallying a single action goal.
“I’ve got a new joke now, that goes, ‘a soccer ball ran into the bar,’” said SCC head coach John Madden. “We had four balls hit the cross bar. That is just unlucky. They were good strong shots that just didn’t go in. But that is the game of soccer.”
SCC actually played an inspired game. Coming in at 5-9-3, the number five seed battled all night with the fourth-seeded Lady Hawks, now 7-7-3.
How they were behind by a goal is all in the eye of the beholder.
“I’ m not sure we were the better team on the field in terms of play tonight,” said Hiland coach Jeremy Kauffman. “It was a very weird game. At times it felt like we were dominating play, then they would dominate play for long stretches of time. They had some really great opportunities in the first half, and it felt like we could have easily been down 4-1 going into the half. At the same time, it felt like we could have been up by more than one.”
Hiland took the early lead on Brandi Raber’s long-range goal just nine minutes into play.
“Our goal is always to get the first goal in the first half, and in a tournament game like this it really helps give us confidence when we can get out in front,” said Raber.
It looked like that single tally might actually hold up, but as to how the Lady Hawks kept the ball out of the net on defense was anyone’s guess. Hiland keeper Berth Boyles made a couple of really nice saves in goal, but SCC had numerous opportunities fall to the wayside when they clanked shots off the cross bar or simply blasted them high over the net.
However, Hiland’s luck ran out with 8:44 left to play, when an unfortunate handball in the box led to a game-tying penalty kick.
Over the final eight minutes, Hiland went into attack mode, and that was important for the team to rally after the tough luck call, which was argued vehemently by Kauffman.
“We actually played pretty poorly on defense tonight,” said midfielder Megan Kandel. “Fortunately we never got down after they scored. We encouraged each other and we knew we were the better team out here and that we needed to stay focused.”
They did, and that focus carried over from the final eight minutes into overtime, where Hiland maintained possession in SCC’s half of the field almost the entire four minutes. Sarah Menuez fired a shot off from the 18 that sailed about three feet wide of the net just 45 seconds in, but Sierra Yoder’s shot didn’t. Yoder ran into a scrum on the left side of the net with two defenders and another Hiland player, and when the ball popped out, Yoder found herself with nothing but green grass between herself and the keeper.
She struck a left-footed shot that sizzled past the keeper toward the far post on the right side of the goal. It banked off the right post, ands unlike all of SCC’s shots, it ricocheted in rather than out, sending the Lady Hawks into a frenzied celebration.
“I really didn’t even think it was going in,” said Yoder of the shot. “This feels so good, I can’t even believe it. I think this is really going to give us a lot of confidence going forward now that we finally got a tournament win. I am so happy for our seniors.”
Kauffman said he told his players that if they continued to put the ball into position to take shots and got shots off, something good was bound to happen. Those words were prophetic on this night.
“I preached before the game and at half-time, that if we kept the ball in their end, something good was going to happen,” said Kauffman. “It started that way to start overtime, and we maintained it the entire overtime period.”
Hiland seemed to control the ball in the midfield much of the game, while SCC took the approach of banging it downfield and chasing. Madden said his team is not gifted with foot-skill players, but they showed a lot of heart in playing what he described as the best game of the season for them.
Kauffman said it was not a shining moment for his team, but they gutted out a win despite not playing their best, and that allows them to live to play again, the Ladyt Hawks now facing Coshocton in the district semifinal.
“It’s all about moving on at this point, and I think the girls are really excited about getting back to .500 and getting a tournament win,” said Kauffman. “I thought it was important for us to regroup, and the girls did a nice job after they scored late.
Brandi had a great game tonight, where she controlled play and took a lot of balls to the end line and sent balls across the face of the goal that we didn’t do anything with.”
Yoder was finally able to do something with it, and that made her team a winner.
Hiland has been looking for an elusive tournament victory for a long time now, and despite some close games and good efforts, it had come up empty on the tournament trail for a long time.
That drought ended with Yoder’s game-winner, and Kauffman said he thinks it will be good for his team this year and teams in the future.
“Obviously we would not have been happy if we had lost this game, but the girls feel that we have had a very successful season and we have come a long way this year,” said Kauffman. “We definitely feel like there is something to build on with the kind of year we have put together.”
Winning breeds success, success breeds confidence, and with a program that has struggled in each of those areas, Kaufman said signature wins like this are important in building a program and turning it in the right direction.
“You need these defining moments in a program so players can look back at them and you can rely on those kinds of moments to build confidence,” said Kauffman. “Right now we are still learning how to have that confidence and how to win close games. This can only help in that process.”
Kauffman and the Lady Hawks hope they get another confidence boost as they take on Coshocton in districts, in a game between two teams which battled to a scoreless tie in the preseason.