Chagrin Falls and Mansfield Madison Comprehensive showcased what any true soccer fan should appreciate during an 80-minute battle and then some in the Division II girls state semifinals on Tuesday night in Strongsville.
The Lady Tigers came in at 18-2-1 with one of the best defenses in Ohio, surrendering just 13 goals through 21 games, as they stormed the pitch in search of their program’s second state final appearance in four years. Chagrin finished state runner-up in 2016.
The state No. 2-ranked Lady Rams, according to the coaches poll, came in at 17-1-4 with one of the best offenses in Ohio, scoring 110 goals through 22 games, as they dashed the pitch in hopes of securing their program’s first trip to a state title game.
Chagrin Falls’ defense prevailed through 80 minutes of play with the score locked, nil-nil, at the end of regulation and a sudden-death overtime brewing.
And although Madison has four players with double-digit scoring resumes who were held at bay all night, it was Lady Ram junior reserve Ashleigh Bechtel who put away a second-chance opportunity on an open net in the fifth minute of overtime for the 1-0 decision.
“We had felt pretty good going into overtime, because we had been in a lot of close games and pulled it off ,” said Chagrin Falls 28th-year head coach Pamela Malone, whose unranked Lady Tigers had already knocked off state No. 4-ranked Canfield, 5-3, in their regional semifinal and No. 3-ranked Copley, 2-0, for their regional championship.
“We’ve been down a goal, we’ve been up goal, you know, just all the different scenarios,” she said. “And we felt confident going into OT that we were going to put one in the net. I think overall this was a great game. I mean, we gave it our best effort, and sometimes your best effort doesn’t give you the result you want. But I’m happy with how the girls played.”
Reiterating the potency of Madison’s offense, the Lady Rams had a pair of 10-0 victories in district play and were coming off a 10-1 victory against Oak Harbor (15-5-1) in their regional championship game.
Not only did Tuesday night’s state semifinal feature a top-tier defense against a top-tier offense, but it also highlighted one of the best defensive players in the state in Chagrin Falls senior center back Katie Schumacher, a Western Michigan commit, and one of the best offensive players in the state in Madison junior midfielder Taylor Huff, a Tennessee commit and first-team all-Ohioan.
Huff entered the night with 34 goals and 26 assists, and she faced off in several one-on-one battles against Schumacher at the edge of the box with the spotlight all to themselves.
Huff did get off two shots on target, including a lefty laser from 25 yards out that hit off the bottom of the crossbar and darted straight down on the goal line, before Chagrin junior goalie Aerin Krebs could snatch it for safety in the 43rd minute.
And Huff did create several opportunities for her teammates, but one would have to say that Schumacher won that battle between the titans.
“Katie (Schumacher) against Taylor Huff – it was awesome,” coach Malone said. “I thought Peyton Gellin did a nice job on her too. She had some kicks that were too high or too wide. So, defensively, we did a great job against her.”
Of course, senior Molly Barr and juniors Jamie Dustin and Marley Graham were executing their usual shut-down defense on the back line as well.
Chagrin Falls sophomore Peyton Gellin, who was the Lady Tigers’ top scorer with 20 goals and five assists, played up top for the better part of the season, but she moved back to a holding midfielder role in regional play against Copley and against Madison on Tuesday.
“With Taylor (Huff) playing at midfield, we just really wanted to match her,” Malone said of keeping Gellin at holding mid. “That was the philosophy, just to give one more tier of defense.”
In turn, Chagrin Falls attempted to counter balance its offense by way of senior Bella Dalessandro and freshman Kate Bartlett both in attacking midfielder positions in the center, which provided the Lady Tigers solid attacks in the first half.
Chagrin earned the first three corner kicks of the night, with senior outside midfielder Creagan Mee delivering a beauty to the far side of the 6-yard box on the first set piece in the second minute of the game. Schumacher nearly got a header on it, but Madison sophomore keeper Morgan Rachel, who entered with 80 saves, attacked the corner with a solid punch out.
“Attack them early,” Malone said of her team’s game plan. “We knew that their defense was probably their weaker point. They’ve given up 35 goals this season, so we thought we were going to get one. And we did push early, just to be a little more physical with them and let them know we’re here to play, and to be tough on the ball.”
But Madison’s defense held strong with aggressive play as well, including a defender taking out Bartlett in the box in the sixth minute of the game, forcing Bartlett to get upended by the sliding keep of Rachel.
At Chagrin’s end, Krebs came up with a brilliant diving save on a follow-up shot from 25 yards that she dove on at the near post in the 30th minute. And amidst three corner kicks by Madison in the final five minutes of the first half, Krebs came up with a save on a header.
While the Lady Tigers created several opportunities in the first half, their first shot on target didn’t come until after intermission, when Dalessandro fired one from 25 yards out in the 44th minute.
But Madison’s potent offense continued to keep the pressure on Chagrin’s dynamic defense throughout the majority of the second half.
That made life difficult as the game wore on for Chagrin sophomore target forward Sarah Burgess, who pleaded with her teammates to push numbers forward on counter attacks. Burgess continuously tried to take on three Madison defenders without much support throughout the second half.
“I liked everything about (Burgess’) effort today,” Malone said. “I think she’s 5-1 and she plays like she’s 6-foot. For her to get a yellow card against a girl that was like 6-foot, like you know she’s digging down deep and giving it her best effort.”
In the first minute of overtime, Schumacher left her post on the back line for one of her patented coast-to-coast attacks and, with numbers, she crossed a ball back post that showed promise but was skipped and cleared away by the Lady Rams.
In the fifth minute of overtime, Madison junior forward Kari Eckenwiler hit the gas on an opportunity at the top of the box and mauled over a sliding Krebs to leave the Chagrin goalie out of position. Chagrin’s Dalessandro made a foot save on the open net, but Madison junior reserve Bechtel put away the rebound for her fourth tally of the season to clinch the 1-0 victory for the Lady Rams.
“If you would have told me Aug. 1 that this group of girls, starting two freshmen, two sophomores, you know, we’re going to make it to the final four and be one of the top four teams in the state, I would have said, ‘Well, that’s great, but I don’t really think that’s going to happen,’” Malone said. “But it did. And every game was better and better and better. I mean, we played a great game. It was just a matter of that one opportunity.”