Chardon senior midfielder Nathan Tager (10) was a one-man wrecking crew last Thursday evening in Euclid. Tager notched the first hat trick of his high school career to pace the Hilltoppers to a 4-1 victory over Euclid.

The early returns on the Chardon Hilltoppers soccer team’s defense look promising.

With the majority of the Hilltoppers’ backline from last year returning for the 2021 campaign, coach Mike Smith said he had high hopes that the defense would be a real strength for the Hilltoppers this season.

So far the defense has been as good as advertised as Chardon maintained its undefeated start to the season by beating Euclid 4-1 last Thursday evening at Euclid Soccer Stadium.

“There has been improved communication at the back,” said the third-year Chardon coach. “We’ve got a lot of good guys back there and they were communicating letting each other know where Euclid’s offense was and how to shut them down.”

The victory marked the first time that the Hilltoppers (2-0-0) had won consecutive games since Smith became the coach. The last time Chardon won back-to-back contests to open the season was at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.

The Hilltoppers took the lead when senior midfielder Nathan Tager scored his first goal of the season unassisted inside the 13th minute of play when he got the ball inside the Euclid box, faked out Panthers’ junior goalkeeper Francis Lanigan and soft toed the ball into the net.

“I just made sure to get a good position at the top of the box,” said Tager. “I just waited for the ball to pop out and come at me and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I found a little hole to shoot it and I scored it.”

Tager continued to fuel the Chardon offense when he extended its lead to 2-0 with his second goal inside the 37th minute off an assist from sophomore midfielder Carter Mack who booted a long outlet kick from midfield for a streaking Tager.

The ball landed right in the middle between Tager and the Euclid goalie. It was a race to see who would get to the ball first. Lanigan dived for the ball but Tager used those long legs of his to poke it right out from underneath the Panther’s goalkeeper’s grasp and dribbled it untouched right into the net.

“It was a beautiful ball,” Tager said smiling. “It was right at the top of the box and I was just running as fast as I could. I got a nice little touch to the side and scored it.”

Tager was the second-leading scorer on the team last year with six goals and three assists through 17 games. He was used primarily as a defensive midfielder the previous season but with several offensive midfielders having graduated, Smith decided to move him to an attacking midfielder’s position and Tager looked the part.

“After moving Nathan into the attacking midfielder’s position, it’s given him a little bit more creativity and leeway to do what he does,” noted Smith. “Nathan is starting to become stronger with the ball. He’s starting to shield a little bit more and go after those aerial balls.”

Junior midfielder Sammy Tager joined in on his older brother’s fun when he pushed Chardon up 3-0 inside the 44th minute of play in the second half off an assist from his older brother.

Nathan sent a cross to Sammy from beyond the box and Sammy dribbled it in at close-range and fired a missile out of the reach of Lanigan for his first goal of the season.

Sammy was the spark plug for the offense last year as he led the team with 13 goals and two assists. He is still primed to be a focal point for the offense this season but Nathan will help make Chardon’s offense that much more lethal with his expanded role this year.

Nathan capped off his career-night with his third goal of the match inside the 56th minute of play off an assist from junior forward Ethen Jackson on a throw-in.

“Ethen threw it in right to my feet,” said the Chardon senior midfielder. “It was a great throw. I got a nice touch into the inside. I was looking more to shoot than pass so I just slotted right into the bottom left-corner with my left foot.”

It marked the first hat track of Nathan’s high school career and he is now halfway to matching his season-high in goals.

Smith said he was pleased with the offensive execution of the Tager brothers but was more encouraged by the defense.

Through the first two games of the year, Chardon has outscored its opponents 8-1 with some dominating defensive efforts.

“We didn’t get a shutout but overall I think our defense is a lot stronger than last year,” said Mack. “I think the extra year of maturity has helped. We’re just focused on getting the win and let the rest take care of itself.”

A year after the Hilltoppers captured their first postseason victory since the 2008 season, Smith said the team is feeling motivated to build off last season’s strong finish and push for a deeper run into the postseason.

The Hilltoppers improved their record to 3-0-0 with a 13-0 shutout victory against Kenmore-Garfield last Saturday afternoon.

After Chardon’s first home game of the season against Wickliffe at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin on Aug. 24, it will be off a week before hitting the road again to take on Western Reserve Conference rivals Willoughby South on Aug. 31 in Willoughby.

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