A 1-0 lead usually means something in the later stages of playoff soccer, where opportunities are kind of like door-to-door trick-or-treating in that you never know what you’re going to get.
But when the Solon soccer boys struck first blood in an attempt to defend their district title during a Division I road collision against top-seed Archbishop Hoban (12-5-1) on Saturday afternoon in Akron, the 1-0 lead didn’t hold its usual weight for two main reasons.
First, the No. 2-seed Comets (14-2-1) scored that tally in the eighth minute with a lifetime of soccer still to be played.
And second, Hoban’s offense hadn’t been shut out through 17 games this season – not against Division I state No. 3-ranked Medina, not against Division I No. 6-ranked Hudson and not against Division II No. 1-ranked Bay Village, all of which won district titles this past week.
But Solon’s defense is no joke. The Comets entered the match riding a 12-game win streak with nine shutouts, including five straight. They hadn’t been scored on since Oct. 10.
So, on second thought, perhaps that 1-0 upper hand in the eighth minute of play did mean something, district championship game or not.
“Hoban’s a really good team,” Solon fifth-year head coach Ryan Greenhill said. “They’re big, they’re strong, they’re physical. So, we really wanted to limit their chances on set pieces but also limit their opportunities on counters. They’re really quick in transition, and so we really wanted to make sure we were positioned well and to minimize their strengths and cut off any transition opportunities they had.
“And I think for the most part we did a good job. They started to press more and more towards the end of the game, but our guys did a good job keeping focused and holding on for the win. And to keep them off the stat sheet, it was the first time any team had done that all season. So, it just speaks for how dangerous their offense had been.”
Thanks to the defensive efforts of Solon senior center back Ben Moss, junior center back Aaron Kaiser and senior outside backs Ryan Funderburg and Kelan Zielinski, Comet senior goalie Zach Baldwin needed to make just three saves to record his 13th clean sheet of the season.
This year’s district banner comes on the heels of the 2019 Comets’ 13-6-1 district championship campaign that featured a 4-2 victory over Hudson in the title game. Solon graduated four starters from that team, including two defensemen, as well as scoring gurus Billy Furlong and Ethan Berkovitz, who accounted for all four goals in that win against Hudson.
“Coming back as district champs, we definitely had a label on our back,” Baldwin said. “We had the two seed, yet a lot of other teams in our district didn’t think we deserved the two seed. So, coming into the game, we just kind of wanted to prove everyone wrong and show them we are a district champ and that we’re going to win it again today. We didn’t play our best by far, but the chances we had we made the most of and put a goal in early.”
In the eighth minute, Baldwin took a free kick from 100 yards out that senior attacking midfielder Noah Jahnke put a slip header on from 42 yards out that snuck by Solon senior forward Andrew Messmer and a Hoban defender and was picked up by Solon 6-foot-4 senior target striker Eric Nouafo from 25 yards out.
Nouafo controlled the first bounce off stomach and then took a lefty strike from 13 yards out that stormed past Knight senior keeper Josh Fenn, who was defending the near post, and into the right netting for the 1-0 lead. That was Nouafo’s 10th tally of the season.
“We had a good flick on that play from Noah Jahnke, and, as Andrew was running across me, it kind of threw off a defender, who had a miss kick, and it just dropped in front of me,” Nouafo said. “So, I just took a touch to set up myself, and I hit it on the back post.”
It’s not often a play from 100 yards away unfolds that quickly
“I wasn’t expecting the defender to have a miss kick there,” Nouafo said. “It just happened to work out that way, so I took my chance when it came. After my first touch, I took a look up to see where the goalie was standing and saw he was far over. So, I just made sure I had clean contact to angle it towards that back post.”
The game plan was to try and find Nouafo in the middle in the flow of play and for Nouafo to get it out wide to senior wingers Messmer or Ben Moss and have them play a ball behind Hoban’s back line, because the Knights’ center backs were big but not super quick.
But, again, chances in playoff soccer are like Halloween handouts, and teams that make the most of those chances, however they come, usually end up on the winning side.
“Definitely, I was surprised,” Baldwin said about his free kick turning into a play that decided the game. “My coach told me to just hit it up there and get it out of pressure, because they were pressing the first 12 minutes of the game. So, I kind of just hit it up, and then, once I saw Noah got a head on it and Eric got by the defender, I knew we had a good chance.
“After that, I knew Hoban might get one or two decent chances on goal, but the way our defense played, they never really had a good chance on goal at all.”
In addition to the Comets’ back line, Solon holding center midfielders Erik Messmer and Tyler Pollock, both juniors, were a big factor in preserving the 1-0 victory.
In particular, Pollock got the nod to start after coming off the bench for the majority of the 2020 campaign.
“Tyler is somebody that has made tremendous strides this year and has been an impact player for us,” said coach Greenhill, who notched his 50th win at the helm. “And as we scouted Hoban, we knew their midfielders were big and strong and we needed somebody to be able to clog passing lanes, be scrappy in the midfield.
“And that’s Tyler’s strength – he’s really good at clogging and being physical and stopping transition play. So, he did a good job and did what he needed to do to minimize any of Hoban’s counterattacks.”
Solon was scheduled to play state No. 1-ranked St. Ignatius (17-0) in the regional semifinals on Wednesday evening. The winner of that game will contend for a regional championship on the road against either Hudson (17-1) or Jackson (14-3-2) at 3 p.m. Nov. 7.