The Solon boys soccer team surely would need a low-scoring game or overtime to take out No. 1-seed Hudson in its Division I district championship match on Saturday at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School.
More often than not, that’s what it takes to knock off a favorite in the district tournament, but the No. 2-seed Comets, who entered the match at 12-5-1 with five straight wins, continued their offensive onslaught of the playoffs.
Behind a pair of tallies from senior left winger Billy Furlong and another pair of tallies from senior center midfielder Ethan Berkovitz, the Solon boys put an exclamation point on a 4-2 victory for their first district banner since 2015, when then-senior goalie Will Meyer, now at Louisville, made four saves in a shootout to secure a title over Hudson.
This year’s Hudson team, which entered Saturday’s game with an 11-4-3 record, was ranked No. 14 among Division I contenders in the state, according to the coaches poll.
“We had two seniors stepping up in big moments,” Solon fourth-year head coach Ryan Greenhill said. “I think it was just our mentality. We’ve been playing with an edge all playoffs that we hadn’t had for most of the regular season, and I think we have just given teams some challenges with our pressure and our pace, especially offensively.”
With Solon 6-foot-4 junior center forward Eric Nouafo attracting attention up top, the Comets found space to attack on the outsides.
In the 18th minute, Solon junior outside defenseman Ryan Funderburg launched a throw-in from near the corner flag that skipped through traffic in the box and was finished backdoor by Furlong for the 1-0 lead.
Funderburg was limited by injury in the first half of the season but has come on strong and been a weapon on long throw-ins that opposing teams have to account for in the final third of the pitch, just like they would for a set piece or a corner.
“Ryan Funderburg threw a long throw that went into the 6-yard box, and it bounced and it was a clear ball that just dashed across the box,” Furlong said. “And I just hit it with my opposite foot, my right foot, and I think the goalie might have got a fingertip on it, but it was just too quick, too fast, and it just went in the back of the net.
“From there, the whole team was just super, super excited and super hyped. But we couldn’t get ahead of ourselves, because it was too big of a game with too much at stake.”
Three minutes later, Berkovitz netted a 2-0 tally off a deflection, and it became clear the Comets’ pressure was going to be a determining factor. That lead held up at the break.
“My teammate Andrew Messmer did a great job getting around his man and just getting to the goal with it,” Berkovitz said of his junior right winger. “Eventually, the ball just fell to my foot, and I knew with the weather conditions that if I put anything near the goalie that it would be hard for him to make a save.
“Once I took the shot and saw the deflection, everything kind of aligned for me right how I would like it, and I just found that bottom left corner. It just felt amazing right then to realize that it was a huge game for me being a senior to score in a game like that and make it 2-0.”
On the defensive end, senior center back Ethan Abraham, sophomore center back Aaron Kaiser, senior outside back Dylan Sussman and Funderburg – all new starters from last year’s 11-4-3 campaign – executed the scouting report to force Hudson out of its usual play and allow junior keeper Zach Baldwin to stand tall between the posts.
Solon junior holding midfielders Noah Jahnke and Ben Moss also took away open space to keep Hudson from building up its through-ball offense.
Closing the gaps in the defensive third, the Comets forced Hudson to try and beat them over the top, which really isn’t the Explorers’ strength, coach Greenhill said.
“Hudson is an excellent team,” he said. “We don’t play them in the regular season, but for most of the season they’ve been a top-10 team in the state. And they do an excellent job of moving the ball, keeping possession, and we knew, with a little bit smaller field and with the rain, we tried to press a little bit more and make it more difficult and force them into some longer-range passes.”
With a 2-0 lead coming out of halftime, the next goal would be pivotal either way.
In the 47th minute, Solon was awarded a free kick from 25 yards out. With where the Hudson wall was set up and the keeper situated, Furlong took a lefty bender and slotted it to the lower far post for a 3-0 command.
“So, Ethan Berkovitz and I, we always go up to free kicks at the top of the box with each other and look at the wall to see who’s going to take it,” Furlong said. “And, based on the wall, he said I should take it, because I’m left-footed.
“And kind of from my angle and where the goalie was standing, he was kind of exposing the entire left side. So, I shot it far post, and it actually hit the post and went in. Going up, 3-0, right there and then, it was super huge.”
Hudson answered three minutes later, however, when senior Peyton Koscho tapped in a pin-ball opportunity off a corner kick to cut the Explorers’ deficit, 3-1.
But Berkovitz would put the Comets back up by three in the 73rd minute on a second-chance opportunity for his second tally of the game. He has a team-high 18 goals this season, after scoring five a year ago.
“My second goal was definitely the more pretty goal I had of the day,” Berkovitz said. “I think I was about 25 yards out and a little bit wide of the goal. I was just able to loft it over the keeper’s head. And, especially for that second goal, the moment it went in, it just felt like everything I had worked for over my soccer career was paid off.
“Right when I scored, I just took my shirt off and ran to the bench and all the coaches, and I just wanted to be a part of that with all of them and my teammates, because, once it was 4-1, I figured we’d be able to carry it through with only (seven) minutes left.”
Hudson scored on another corner kick with less than two minutes to play, but it was a little bit too little, too late for the Explorers in an eventual 4-2 result in favor of Solon.
The triumph was Solon’s sixth straight win since a 5-0 road loss against Brunswick on Oct. 1, which had the Comets standing at 7-5-1 with three games left in the regular season.
“I would say that was the turning point,” Furlong said. “After that, we had a practice where the whole entire practice we didn’t even practice. We sat in a room and had a meeting and kind of talked about our personal life and kind of laid everything out and said, ‘From here on out, this is like a brotherhood. Everybody has each other’s backs.’ Since then, everybody has just worked for each other.”
The Solon boys (13-5-1) were scheduled to play state No. 1-ranked Medina (18-0-1) in regional semifinal action on Wednesday night. The winner of that game will play either Shaker Heights (11-3-5) or North Canton Hoover (13-4-2) in the regional championship Nov. 2 at a time and location to be determined.