Sunday, February 25, 2024

Blue Devils win third straight district title

CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS—Independence scored three second-half goals to finish off Lake Ridge Academy in a Division III district championship game at Ralph P. Adams Stadium on Saturday, 4-0.

The Blue Devils improved to 19-0 on the year in claiming their third straight district title.

“The boys wanted to go a little further in the playoffs this year and at least get back to the regionals to take that next step,” Independence coach Ryan MacRaild said. “Getting through the district was first and foremost.”

Independence previously defeated Lake Ridge 8-0 back on Sept. 13 but the sixth-seeded Lions were vastly improved and entered the game having knocked off No. 3 Beachwood in a sectional championship game and No. 7 Oberlin in the district semifinals.

“When you see a team like Lake Ridge kind of climb out of nowhere and take on two quality teams and end up in the district final, you know you’re going to be in for a battle and they did just that,” MacRaild said.

The Blue Devils scored their only first-half goal on a Sam Belitz penalty kick after Adam Leibel was tackled in the box in the 10th minute.

MacRaild didn’t change much in the second half but the Blue Devils were more effective in operating their attack.

“The penalty was the right call,” MacRaild said. “We got taken down in the box so it was good to have that one goal but it was just a matter of trying to play our game a little bit more. We like to move the ball around and we were getting really lax and sending it in a little long and not playing our style. They had nine guys in the box playing defense. It’s hard to get through that, regardless of who you’re playing. “

Christian Steibel opened the second half scoring when he punched in a Belitz deflection with 24:30 remaining in the game.

With a two-goal deficit, the Lions were forced to push forward. That opened the defensive third and Independence took advantage.

Seamus Kral made it 3-0 with 20:49 left in the game and Casey McGhee closed out the scoring two minutes later.

“We work on it every day moving the ball and moving around the ball so it was nice to spread the love tonight and have different guys get looks,” MacRaild said. “If one guy isn’t having a great game we can go feed somebody else and see what they can do. Eventually, we were able to wear them down. Once we put in another one, they kind of had to push a little bit and that opened it up for a few more chances. We took advantage.”

The shutout was the 13th of the year for keeper Ethan Manelski and the Independence defense, which has now allowed just six goals in 19 games.

Jimmy Senick was tasked with marking Lake Ridge’s top player and he was successful in preventing any quality looks at the net.

“We knew Jimmy was going to have to mark their new kid who moved in from Spain and he really did a good job of limiting him to no shot except for free kicks,” MacRaild said. “Everybody else did their job closing down quickly and kept points off the board.”

The Blue Devils will play Van Buren in a regional semifinal on Wednesday at Sandusky Perkins High School.

Van Buren enters the game with a 17-2 record.

The Black Knights defeated Elmore 3-2 in overtime to win their district title.

“Van Buren is a really good soccer team,” MacRaild said. “They were the No. 1 seed in their district for a reason. Usually, that district sends out Mansfield Christian, who has kind of lost some talent over the years and Van Buren has risen. They’re solid. They’re a good, organized defense and a strong, organized attack. They finish. They put the ball in the goal. They’re not air-mailing a lot of shots or missing a lot of shots. They can score goals. It will be a good battle both ways.”

Steve Hare
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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