With their game tied 1-1, Henry Clay left back Drew Grider spotted space in front of him and a lane to the end line. He took it. Able to turn the corner on his pursuer, he ran along the line and served the ball into the box like he’s done any number of practices.
“I knew if I could get down the line and get the ball in, someone would be able to finish it,” Grider, a junior said. “We did. I’m happy about that.”
The ball bounded up in the air after one teammate’s stab and hung up perfectly for a volley by Gavin Dreyer at the top of the 6-yard box to put the Blue Devils ahead 2-1 with 13:01 left.
No. 2 Henry Clay added another late score and prevailed for a 3-1 win over the No. 8 Commodores in an 11th Region Tournament semifinals match between Lexington’s highest-rated Maher Rankings teams at the Sower Soccer Complex in Frankfort. The Blue Devils will face Great Crossing in Thursday’s finals after the Warhawks 2-1 over Paul Laurence Dunbar in the late game.
“We work on things every week in practice, try to tweak things and understand where the dangerous areas to attack are,” Henry Clay Coach Jason Behler said. “That’s a drill we’ve run 500 times in practice, and to see it executed is nice.”
Henry Clay capitalized early as a throw in deep in Creek territory yielded an unexpected chance in the box put away by Chris Sanders less than two minutes into the game.
The two teams struggled to gain much headway the rest of the half as they got used to Sower’s tight grass surface, a departure from the larger turf fields in Lexington.
“It’s not what we’re used to at all, but we adjusted,” Behler said. “It took us a while. … The early goal, I think rattled us more than it calmed us. We were nervy for about 20 minutes.”
Blue Devils fans’ nerves got rattled in the second half, as well, when Tates Creek’s Jona Juarez ran into a corner kick service that reached him in the far corner of the box where he pounded in the equalizer at the 31:51 mark.
Behler said he knew set pieces off free kicks and corners would be Tates Creek’s best chances to score.
“We gave up too many, in my opinion … ,” Behler said.
After Dreyer put the Blue Devils in front, Tahj Jairam tacked on some insurance as he stepped into a rebound of teammate Sota Ippongi’s shot to make it 3-1 with 8:16 left.
“From the beginning of the season, I thought we were the two best teams in the city,” Behler said of his semifinal opponents. “That’s no knock against anybody else, but they’ve been building up for the last couple of years. … I was really hoping this would be the region final, but you’ve got to play all these teams at some point, and we’ll have another hard one Thursday.”
Great Crossing 2, Dunbar 1: Ty Martin received a perfect drop in space at the top of the box and put home what turned out to be the game winner in Tuesday’s other semifinal against perennial region contender Paul Laurence Dunbar.
“I made a run in the box and I saw (Zachary) Hamner cutting in and I knew I was going to be open,” Martin said of the moment, which came with about 31 minutes left in the second half. “All the defense stepped back to the line and they left me with a back angle pass. He dropped it on a dime and I just did what I should have.”
Great Crossing, a first-year team with a veteran core brought over from Scott County, makes the school district’s first regional finals appearance since 2006 when the Cardinals were part of the old 13th.
“Words can’t describe how important it is to us,” Martin said of Tuesday’s win. “We’re a family. We’ve got 14 seniors. We just didn’t want to go home. We did what we had to do.”
Dunbar furiously tried to get back in the game and continued to pour balls into the box and make dangerous attacking runs the rest of the way, but Jason O’Hara’s free kick off the right post from 25 yards out became indicative of the frustration the Bulldogs faced against a tenacious Warhawks defense.
“We had some opportunities,” interim head coach Jeff Stone said. “They played a good game. They played hard. ... In this situation you try, scrap, do anything you can do. Throw numbers forward, send it in there and hopefully you get lucky.”
Lexington Catholic 2, Henry Clay 1: Bailey Stephenson scored both goals for Lexington Catholic as the Knights avenged last year’s tournament loss to Henry Clay with a 2-1 victory over those same Blue Devils at Madison Central’s soccer field in Richmond.
Stephenson let loose a shot from about 20 yards out at the 31-minute mark of the second half to tie the game at 1 after Henry Clay’s Chloe Grevious opened the scoring early in the first.
A few moments later, LexCath’s Emma James Bryant drew a foul in the box that set up Stephenson for a go-ahead penalty kick.
The Knights held on to reach Thursday’s 11th Region finals where they will take on Tates Creek, the state’s No. 1 team according to the Maher Rankings and the KHSAA RPI.
Tates Creek 1, Frederick Douglass 0: In Tuesday’s other semifinal, Tates Creek’s Jameela Shalash scored on an assist from Callen Johnson just under five minutes into the second half and the Commodores held on.
Friday’s finals will mark the second time in three years the Commodores and Lexington Catholic have met for the 11th Region title. In 2017 Tates Creek won the 43rd District only to lose the regional in overtime. This year, Creek won the district again in a 4-1 game last week. In the regular season, Creek prevailed 1-0.
Creek has a veteran team with 13 seniors led by EKU commit Shae Robertson, who’s scored a team-high 30 goals, and Ohio commit Carsynne Prigge, who directs the action from around the back of the formation, but has proved dangerous in attack with nine goals and seven assists. Both were key players for the Commodores in 2017, as well.
Lexington Catholic lost senior playmaker Maggie Corbett to injury midseason, but has found its form in recent weeks with junior Bailey Stephenson and her freshman sister Kylie May Stephenson providing key goals down the stretch and junior Emma James Bryant and sophomore Emily Scanlon among the Knights’ leading scorers.