The set pieces were flowing more abundantly than the cider at Patterson Fruit Farm for the West Geauga girls in their Division II district title game against Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin last Thursday at Harry E. Winters Stadium in Willoughby.
The district No. 1-seed Lady Wolverines entered the match at 15-2, ranked ninth in the state coaches poll and were chasing their first district banner since 2010, when current third-year head coach Kori (Chapic) Jesenovec led West Geauga to a 2-1 shootout victory against Mentor.
District No. 2-seed NDCL, meanwhile, entered the night at 10-7-1, but the Lady Lions were coming off a momentous 2-1 victory against state No. 7-ranked Lake Catholic in semifinals play.
West Geauga owned the better of play in the first half with junior target forward Nicola Ehrbar, who came in with 30 goals on her season resume, testing NDCL senior goalie Allie Martin early, while freshman Frankee Flesher and senior Grace Keiper threatened from the wings.
And junior holding midfielder Bailey Zanella was doing her thing, sending long balls from the back, to keep NDCL’s defense weary of pushing up too hard on counterattacks.
Ehrbar put the first shot on target from 25 yards out in the fourth minute, with Martin making a foot save, and then found Keiper on a diagonal feed, but a tight angle had Martin coming up with an easy get in the ninth minute.
In the 11th minute, Flesher was attacking on the left side of the 18-yard box, sent a short cross to the 6-yard box that was deflected off an NDCL defender, and Ehrbar’s one-timer follow-up went wide.
And in the 18th minute, Zanella sent a beauty of a long ball from the back, but Ehrbar couldn’t quite run onto it, and Martin made a sliding keep.
All those opportunities were complemented by eight set pieces in the first half for West Geauga – including five corner kicks taken by sophomore attacking midfielder Rae Ehrbar and three free kicks that ranged from 25 yards out to 35 yards out. On the closest free kick, the elder Ehrbar put a direct take on goal with Martin making a diving save in the 25th minute.
But all of that cider just wasn’t bearing fruit for the Lady Wolverines, who had previously defeated NDCL, 2-1, in a season opener on Aug. 16.
“Honestly, I thought it was a fairly similar match,” coach Jesenovec said. “I think it was a fairly similar match in a sense that we were both neck-and-neck with each other. The difference between earlier this season and now is that we put our chances away at the beginning of the season.
“Today, we didn’t have that. But, ultimately, I really did think it was a pretty close and similar game. Even though both teams developed, I think we developed at the same rate.”
Weathering the storm, NDCL gained some traction near the end of the half with junior forward Eric Leinweber and senior forward Marina Hess initiating their attacks from the wings against West G’s backline of center backs Emily Allegretti and Aubrey Zanella and outside backs Bella Burkhand and Madison Allegretti.
In the final six minutes of the half, NDCL got its first two corners of the game. The former represented danger with West Geauga freshman keeper Ashlyn Drayer getting out of position on an attempted punch-out before one of her defenders cleared it.
On the latter corner, NDCL’s Hess delivered another brilliant boot to the backside of the inner box, sophomore Ellie Znidarsic headed it off the crossbar, and then senior Hannah Megyesi finished the rebound for the 1-0 upper hand with 1:16 left in the half.
A 1-0 deficit was nothing to overcome for a West Geauga team that was getting the opportunities it had in the first half, but NDCL came out the aggressor and owned the attacking end of the field for the first 20 minutes of the second half.
In the 47th minute, Hess found open space on the right side, outside of the box, unleashed a shot that sailed over keeper Drayer’s vertical reach and into the far side netting for the Lady Lions’ 2-0 lead.
There was really nothing Drayer could have done differently to make a save on either of NDCL’s tip-your-hat tallies.
“Ashlyn has been key for us all season long,” Jesenovec said of her young keeper. “I think that, ultimately, any goal in the back of our net is a team goal against us. It’s lost up top, and then it gets to our midfield, which gets to our defense, which then gets through our goalie.
“So, the biggest thing I make sure that our girls know is that any goal that gets to the back of the net has to get through 11 players before it goes there. So, ultimately, staying in front of the ball, making sure that they don’t get those crossing opportunities, holding our feet – I say keep our feet just to make sure we stay in front of the ball.”
Another corner kick for West Geauga went nowhere in the 51st minute, and then West Geauga switched holding midfielder Zanella up top to center forward and brought back the elder Ehrbar to try and initiate a different look in its attack.
“I felt this game that Nicola (Ehrbar) was being hidden a little bit up top at times,” Jesenovec said. “Essentially, that’s the scouting report against us, right? Mark Nicola. You know, CVC MVP, mark that player. And a lot of the time she kind of disappears. So, pulling her back in that sense got her more involved in the match, which essentially helped us to get that goal.”
On an attack initiated by Ehrbar, Flesher found space on the right side of the box and ripped her 11th tally of the season off the far post and into the back of the net to cut the Lady Wolverines’ deficit, 2-1, in the 61st minute.
But there was no time to celebrate, as the freshman winger ran to collect her own goal and take it back to midfield to set it up at the center circle to continue play.
“I think that’s just her humble attitude,” Jesenovec said. “I heard an interview of her from our last game; they asked her to explain her goals that night, and she came out and talked about the team goals. I mean, that’s just her mentality. I’m so impressed and so proud of the person that she is and character that she carries. She’s the next generation of West Geauga soccer.”
Regaining some momentum, the elder Ehrbar ripped a shot from 35 yards out that sailed just over the crossbar in the 64th minute. Center back Zanella took a free kick from 30 yards out that Martin punched out in the 77th minute. And freshman reserve Megan McGinnis took a strike with some heat on it from 30 yards out that Martin had to back track to make a save on with 45 seconds remaining.
But the equalizer just never came for the West Geauga girls, who finished their campaign as district runners-up at 15-3.
Jesenovec said she reminded her players in the postgame huddle that they claimed their program’s first Chagrin Valley Conference title in eight years.
“I think the biggest thing is to see how much they’ve grown, from the time in the spring we were doing lifting to now, and seeing their development over these past couple years,” the coach said.
“I said that basically these relationships that they’ve been building for the past months and months and months are relationships that will never go away,” Jesenovec said. “Soccer comes and goes, but, as for the relationships, the friendships and the care that they have for each other, that never disappears.”