Three-goal leads are usually pretty secure on the pitch, but the Chagrin Falls girls would need to keep scoring if they wanted to beat state No. 4-ranked Canfield in the Division II regional semifinals on Tuesday night in Streetsboro.
The Lady Tigers entered the soccer match with a 16-2-1 record and a No. 17 ranking in the Ohio Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association poll – clearly taking on the underdog role.
But a pair of tallies by senior outside midfielder Creagan Mee in the 10th and 15th minutes as well as a header finish by sophomore center forward Peyton Gellin in the 30th minute had the Chagrin Falls girls in command, 3-0, at intermission.
With a defensive unit headlined by center back Katie Schumacher, a Western Michigan commit, and third-year starting goalkeeper Aerin Krebs, the Lady Tigers had surrendered no more than two goals in any given match through 17 games, including 12 shutout victories.
Junior center back Jamie Dustin, senior outside back Molly Barr and junior outside back Marley Graham also deserve the credit.
But Canfield entered the game with a 17-2 record and an offense that was averaging 3.7 goals per game.
“We said part of our game plan was to jump on them quickly, and, if they get the ball first, we have to attack them,” Chagrin Falls 28th-year head coach Pamela Malone said. “And that’s what we did. I was really, really surprised we were up, 3-0, at half, but not quite comfortable because Canfield is a good, strong team. And I felt like it was a 1-0 lead at halftime, event though it was 3-0.”
While Mee only recorded two goals through 16 games in the regular season, the outside midfielder has caught fire in the playoffs with five goals in four games.
One of her tallies on Tuesday night came on a short rocket off a cross from sophomore forward Sarah Burgess, and the other one was a rebound finish.
“She has so much speed, and we work on crossing the ball and getting on the end of a cross,” Malone said of Mee. “The first four or five games, she was like, ‘OK, I get it. I need to be on the back post.’ But she has had an amazing four or five games where she is finishing on the back post and just drilling them in the back of the net.
“Sarah Burgess is setting her up. Peyton Gellin is setting her up. And we just know that with her speed, she is outrunning the defender and getting on the back post and putting the ball away, which is great.”
The third goal came during a free kick from Schumacher, who delivered a high feed that bounced in front of a Canfield defender and over the Lady Cardinals’ goalie, who came off her line, and Chagrin’s Gellin jumped up and headed it home for her team-high 19th goal of the season.
“It was a beautiful goal,” Malone said. But the coach still felt some unease about a three-goal lead that would have been good enough to win any game the Lady Tigers had played so far this season.
“I think everybody we face in any kind of tournament play, you can throw what you did in the regular season out the window,” Malone said. “Like against Aurora (in the district championship), they’re going to play hard. They’re there because they’ve won games in the tournament. They’ve been gritty and found a way to win.”
In district championship action last Thursday, the Lady Tigers were up against an 8-8-2 Aurora team, whose record didn’t provoke much of a threat at face value, but Chagrin Falls needed Gellin’s header tally off center midfielder Bella Dalessandro’s corner kick with less than a minute to play for a 1-0 victory.
But Malone’s unease with a 3-0 lead against Canfield on Tuesday proved to be warranted.
Out of the break, the Lady Cardinals struck on a free kick off the crossbar and into the net in the 44th minute, and then scored again, two minutes later, to cut the deficit, 3-2.
Chagrin Falls answered on a cross by freshman midfielder Elana McGinnis that hit off a Canfield defender, who was facing the goal, and went into the back of the net for an own goal and a 4-2 Lady Tiger advantage in the 47th minute.
At halftime, the Lady Tigers noticed the Canfield keeper wasn’t confident coming out on crosses, so they drew up their flankers to play wide and continue to send in crosses, Malone said.
But then Canfield struck again on a penalty kick – off a handball in the box – in the 50th minute, which was the Lady Cardinals’ third tally in a six-minute stretch, to cut their deficit, 4-3, with a lifetime of soccer to play.
“I think as a coach you want to put your players in all different kinds of scenarios,” Malone said. “I probably would not have chosen to put them in a 3-0, OK, all of the sudden it’s a 3-2 game, then a 4-3 game, but they did weather the storm.
“So, we showed that we were gritty. We went back to fundamentals. We went back to possession. We went back to making the ball work. So, exhale a couple times, relax, we know how to do this. We’ve got this. We learned that lesson.”
Chagrin’s Burgess put the scoring to bed in the flow of play in the 71st minute, when McGinnis played her the ball, her technical skills took over to create space, and she drilled home her 10th tally of the season for the eventual 5-3 final.
Malone said that was a breathe-easy goal.
“At that point, if we gave up two more goals, we deserved to lose this game,” she said.
With the win, Chagrin Falls improved to 17-2-1 and advances to take on state No. 3-ranked Copley (15-4-1), a 5-2 winner over Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, in the regional championship game on Nov. 2 at a time and location to be determined, as of Tuesday night.