By Dan Gilles
Rocky River’s girls soccer team stunningly gave up an early goal to underdog Celina in their Division II, Region 6 championship game.
All that goal did was wake up a sleeping giant.
From that moment on, the Pirates dominated the action, en route to a 3-1 victory at Ashland Community Stadium Saturday afternoon to punch their ticket to the Division II state semifinals – their first trip to the final four in school history.
Rocky River (20-0-1) advances to play Hathaway Brown (15-3-3) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at a site to be determined in the state semifinals. Celina’s season ends at 14-3-4.
“This is awesome for our community and for our school,” Rocky River coach Patrick Hopkins said. “Rocky River’s a great place. I love it. I live there. My kids are in the school system. It’s amazing how much support these girls get from the community as a whole.
“It’s good for everyone. We had the football team in the crowd, the hockey team in the crowd … when things go well, everyone jumps on board and everyone’s a part of it. It’s been a great ride so far, and we hope it keeps going.”
As an afternoon shower descended on the field, Celina struck first. Sophomore forward Caelyn Reineke took a pass from Bekah Carr and banged a shot off the left post that ricocheted into back of the net. All of a sudden, the Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead with 31:08 left in the first half.
However, it only took a minute before the Pirates answered right back. Junior midfielder Sydney Hamker headed in a corner kick from junior Jillian Krebs with 30:07 left to tie the score at 1.
“I’ll be honest – we did not play well today,” Hopkins said. “We put ourselves in a situation where we were down. That’s the first time we’ve been down all year. But, it only lasted 30 seconds. I have so much confidence in this team and their abilities that, even when things weren’t going well, and we struggled a lot today, that we’ll play our style of soccer and get things right.
“That team really tried to stop our attack, and with the rain and the wind we had in the first half, there were a lot of factors that went against us today. Celina came out here fighting, and any team that reaches the Elite Eight is a great team. There are no slouches at this level, and we can’t take anyone lightly. I think we came out a little bit flat today.”
Rocky River had another great chance on another Krebs corner kick with 20 minutes left in the first half. But senior Abby Elinsky’s header was knocked away by a Celina defender in front of the goal. Three minutes later, Hamker had a shot from about 20 yards away that sailed over the goal.
The Pirates finally broke the tie with 4:49 remaining in the first half, when sophomore forward Samantha Zamarripa wound up with the ball in front of the goal after a scramble and kicked a blooper over the goalie and into the back of the net.
“We responded very well,” Hopkins said. “We’re a really strong possession team, and this was a fast field, which we like, but with the mist, our touches weren’t where they needed to be tonight. But it was the same for both teams, and that’s one thing that, no matter what, we made sure we took advantage of our opportunities and finished.”
A foul called on Celina within the first minute of the second half set up Rocky River’s third goal of the game. Senior forward Grace Bennett kicked in a free kick from Elinsky from about two yards out to extend the Pirates lead to 3-1 with 39:21 left in the half. Elinsky attempted the free kick from about 30 yards out and to the left of the net.
“That was big,” Hopkins said. “To have a lead going into halftime is nice, but to have that first goal of the second half and to get it so soon was a momentum boost. I tell the girls we want to win every half. We won the first half, and we tied the second half, but overall, I thought the girls played well and played through a lot.”
Rocky River dominated the first half, getting off seven shots to Celina’s three and had five corner kicks to none for the Bulldogs. The Pirates were so dominant in the second half Celina didn’t cross the 50-yard-line until there were 23 minutes remaining.
However, Celina made things interesting when Carr knocked in a free kick from 30 yards out that just went over the arms of Rocky River goalie Sara Connelly with 2:58 remaining. But the Pirates controlled the ball in the Bulldog end for the final two minutes to salt the game away.
“They had nine people behind the ball,” Hopkins said. “And when you have powerful forwards and midfielders, that’s going to happen. It won’t be the last time we see that, and we have to adjust to it. Tonight, we adjusted to it and we found a victory.”
For the game, Rocky River outshot Celina, 11-5, and had seven corner kicks to the Bulldogs’ two. But Connelly did not have a save in goal, while Celina goalie Callie Vogel had seven saves.
“I was very ecstatic with how our team played,” Celina coach Calvin Freeman said. “I know they hadn’t been scored on in a long time – they just don’t give up goals. Like I told the team, ‘Just play our game and do the best we can.’
“To play the top-ranked team in the state, the No. 6 team in the country, and score two goals on them and only lose by one, all things considered, is something we’ll build off of. We’re only losing two seniors, so hopefully we’ll be back here. But hat’s off to Rocky River – that’s a fantastic team over there.”
The Pirates defeated Hathaway Brown, 6-2, in the state semifinals last night at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, and move on to play in the OHSAA Division II state championship game Friday at 3:30 p.m.at Columbus Crew Stadium!