Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Blue Devils head back to district final

A 1-0 shootout loss to Columbia in the 2015 Division III district championship game didn’t sit well with the Independence boys’ soccer team.

With an 8-0 win over visiting Elyria Catholic on Tuesday, the Blue Devils get a shot at redemption when they play Lutheran West in Saturday’s district final at Avon Lake High School.

“I think the kids were excited to play and get to the next game,” said Independence coach Ryan MacRaild of the big win. “They wanted to assert themselves early and I told them we've got to get on the board quick and attack with everything we've got. If everybody does their job we'd be successful. That was a good first half of soccer to be up 6-0.”

Jared McCullough scored the first two goals on his way to recording his first hat trick.

“It felt amazing,” McCullough said. “It’s my first hat trick ever in my soccer career and I am very proud of it.”

Sam Belitz also recorded a hat trick and Christian Seif had two goals in the win.

McCullough hasn’t had many scoring opportunities this season as he typically lines up on defense for the Blue Devils.

MacRaild moved him to the midfield for the game against the Panthers and it paid off.

Opposing teams are well aware of Belitz, Seif, Nathan Wells and Wyatt Kunevicius, Independence’s top scoring threats, but McCullough flew under the radar.

“It's interesting because Jared hasn't really scored a lot of goals for us because he’s been so defense and he played midfield today and had some opportunities to run through,” MacRaild said. “You know you've got to keep an eye on Belitz and Kunevicius. I kept hearing from the other bench, 'Watch out for 3, watch out for 14, watch out for 25 for Wells and cover 23.' Eventually someone was going to sneak through and Jared was kind of the X-factor with the first two goals. He made a couple good runs out of the back, we got him the ball and he finished. He's a great attacking threat but he's our best defender too. It's kind of nice to have his speed and we use it on both sides of the ball.”

Belitz credited a team effort for the offensive outburst.

“Our teamwork and buildup, in the first half especially, was just beautiful,” he said. “Not only that, but the recovering on defense and stepping to the ball put us on the front foot for most of the half.”

The second-seeded Blue Devils get another crack at Lutheran West after earning a 1-1 draw with the Longhorns back on Sept. 19. The Longhorns earned the district’s top seed and finished the regular season ranked No. 8 in the state Division III soccer poll.

“They're loaded,” MacRaild said. “They have nine seniors on the field that start and 13 total. They are 16-1-2, which is the best record in DIII from my understanding. They have a 1-2 punch with (Zachary) Kluever and (David) Quayle, who are amazing talents. They'll give us all we can handle. They can play a hard, physical game and they're going to be amped up just as much as us. It should be exciting. We're looking forward to a good matchup and hopefully kind of avenge what happened to us last year and maybe use that experience to our benefit but they're loaded. That’s a loaded team.”

Kluever leads the Longhorns with 28 goals and also has 10 assists while Quayle has scored 25 times.

Steve Hare
Steve Hare is the Chagrin Valley Conference's Sports Information Director. He also created and publishes, an online publication dedicated to providing hyperlocal coverage to area high school athletic programs. Hare began covering high school sports for the Lake County News Herald in 1997. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.

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