CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS—Two years ago, Kirtland shocked the Northeast Ohio soccer community when the Hornets upset both Gilmour Academy and Hawken in winning the program’s first district title on the way to a run to the state Final Four.
On Thursday, the Hornets defended their No. 1 seed with a 4-1 win over previously undefeated Berkshire in a Division III district championship game at Ralph P. Adams Stadium at Cuyahoga Heights High School.
“It’s a different feeling because we’re the favorite the whole way through and that presents its own set of pressures,” said Kirtland coach Ed Bradac. “Two years ago, nobody expects us to be here, but when you look at a program and you look at how it’s built and how it’s run, I’m so proud of every one of our seniors all the way down to our freshmen class. We worked hard all year to set ourselves up for this moment and to be able to come through and cross your Ts and dot your Is, I couldn’t be happier.”
Kirtland’s victory capped an extra special 16th wedding anniversary for Bradac and his wife of 16 years, Carol, who teaches Kindergarten in the district and had several Hornet players in her class including Hannah Vouk, who scored the first goal of the game, Gabby Culotta, who recorded four saves, Amber Yurick and Leah LaVerde.
Despite a 1-1 score at halftime, the Hornets peppered Berkshire goalie Catherine Lillibridge with shot after shot in the first half.
Emily Ungrady had two good looks at the goal while Maya Zovko fired off four shots at Lillibridge, who recorded nine of her 12 saves in the first 40 minutes of play. Lidia Rodin had two attempts, including one that bounced off the crossbar and Jenna Sayle recorded a shot on goal.
Vouk finally broke the scoreless tie with a shot from distance that rattled off the post and deflected into the corner of the goal for a 1-0 Kirtland lead with 17:33 left in the half.
Berkshire freshman Allie Barcikoski chased down a free ball and buried it into the left corner to tie the game, 1-1, with 3:22 left in the half.
“When we get into halftime, we as coaches talked about what adjustments we needed to make and we all knew the answer. We’re not making adjustments,” Bradac said. “We have possessed the ball for 37 or some crazy amount of minutes in that first half. We were moving the ball and our movement off of the ball was phenomenal and we took some good shots. The feeling was just to keep playing that style, keep wearing them down.”
The Hornets didn’t waste time in the second half.
“I wasn’t worried, we never panicked,” Bradac said. “We said keep playing the ball wide, let’s look to bring it back in. The key for me was Emily. She has such a tremendous amount of speed. She gets the penalty kick. With no hesitation, Maggie Kadas has ice running in her veins, she did it two years ago in districts, she stepped up as a sophomore and buried the PK, so I wanted her taking that kick.”
Sayle made it 3-1 when she finished off an assist from Rodin with 18:37 left in the game.
Danielle Bryll closed out the scoring when she punched in a loose ball off a corner kick as time expired.
“We said, ‘Look, we’ve got 40 minutes of soccer left, not 35, not 37,’” Bradac said. “You want to play a full 40 minutes of soccer and that right here speaks volume about how this team plays.”
Despite the loss, the Badgers played a competitive game.
“We were unfortunate on the first goal, that wasn’t a shot, it was a cross that our goalie hit the post and couldn’t jump,” said Berkshire coach Rick Nerone. “That PK was really questionable and I’ll just leave it at that. In saying that, our all-state player, the first ever all-state player, has to be smarter than that and not put herself in that situation. The third goal, I think Cat had a mental lapse. I’m not even counting the last goal because there already were tears coming down their eyes in the last minute.”
Berkshire’s historic season came to an end but the Badgers have plenty to look forward to as they’ll return the bulk of their starters and reserves from the team that finished 18-1 and set several new school records.
“We played well at times but I see a lot of where Kirtland was four or five years ago where we are now. Hopefully, the underclassmen will have that chat tomorrow and use this as motivation,” Nerone said. “Kirtland is the gold standard for Division III public schools. They are the top public school in Division III, so there is no shame in losing to them. Now I’ll be their biggest cheerleader. I hope they go all the way because that will make this loss a little more bearable.”
Kirtland advanced to the Region 9 semifinals where the Hornets will face Rootstown, the Kent Disctrict champion, on Oct. 31 at Solon High School. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m.