Independence opened the 2018 season with a 3-1 win over Chagrin Valley Conference rival Wickliffe at Stan Skoczen Stadium on Wednesday.
The game began on Tuesday but a lightning delay forced the game to be completed a day later with Wickliffe leading 1-0 in the first half. That allowed the Blue Devils the opportunity to rethink their strategy and it paid off with three second half goals to secure the win in a rematch of last season’s Division III district championship game.
“With a delay in the game from (Tuesday to Wednesday), it gave us a bit of a chance to regroup but we couldn’t break down their defense for the remaining 25 minutes and it stayed 1-0 Wickliffe into halftime,” said Independence coach Ryan MacRaild. “We made a few adjustments and came out attacking with a little more composure and found some more opportunities. They started to wear down and it led to a few more chances and a few more goals.”
Nick Colbert scored Wickliffe’s first half goal.
That lead held up until Sam Belitz scored the first of his two goals off an assist from Seamus Kral to even the score. Belitz then scored his second to give the Blue Devils their first lead of the season.
“Grabbing the equalizer and the go-ahead goal was my privilege,” Belitz said. “The first came off of an insane run by Seamus Kral, who squared it to me in the box, and I finished with the outside of my right into the top corner. The second was again the result of my teammates getting the ball to me in a great advanced position and I beat two guys and just hit it as hard as I could with my left through the keeper’s reach.”
The weather delay left Independence with 24 more hours to stew over their 1-0 deficit.
For Belitz, that meant agonizing over the 4-3 loss to Rootstown in the regional semifinals that ended Independence’s season with a 19-1 record.
“It was really weird going all day thinking that we’re down 1-0 in a game that’s still going on,” Belitz said. “When game time finally came, everyone knew we’d have to leave it all out there if we were going to come back against a great Wickliffe team. (The win) marked a new chapter for this group of boys. We didn’t play perfectly, but we have so many positives to build on. We made adjustments, stuck to our game plan, and executed the way a championship team should. Huge shout out to our back line for keeping us steady in the back and my boy Elek McDonald, who showed pure quality tonight. It might be cheesy, but it really felt like a family win on top of being a team win.”
McDonald launched a 25-yard strike to close out the scoring.
“I waited on the top of the penalty box for the ball to roll out and when it did, I put my laces through it and watched it fly to the top corner,” McDonald said. “Wickliffe is always great competition and to play them first game of the season was really challenging. Getting the win is definitely a confidence booster, which we’ll need throughout the season.”
As Belitz said, the win was a total team effort with the attackers taking advantages of their chances created by the midfield and the backend doing its job to protect goalkeeper Ethan Manelski, who finished with two saves.
“Sam worked hard to create chances with Seamus, Elek and Emmett Stralka up top while our defense helped neutralize a potent attack that Wickliffe possessed,” MacRaild said. “Brandon Patton and Brad Watroba also gave good minutes and kept the attack rolling in the second half. The defense held strong with Kyle Streibel, Jimmy Senick, Joe Wisniewski and Adam Leibal fronting Ethan Manelski in goal.”
Independence improved to 1-0. The Blue Devils host rival Cuyahoga Heights on Aug. 28. Wickliffe dropped to 0-1. The Blue Devils look to rebound at Columbia on Aug. 25.
“I am sure we will see Wickliffe again in the playoffs,” MacRaild said. “They are a strong team who gave us all we could handle with a strong defense and great counterattack. It was good to get the first win in the league and on the season.”