ELYRIA — In an 80-minute thriller, Elyria Catholic won its first Division II sectional soccer championship Thursday night at Knights of Columbus Field.
The unseeded Panthers, moving up from Division III this season, pinned a 2-1 loss on third-seeded Copley. The winner was a rocket off Anthony Saxton’s right foot on the restart after a Copley foul in the 48th minute.
From then to the end, the Indians applied nonstop pressure. But the Panthers defense, anchored by senior co-captain Nick Levis, limited the Indians to just three shots the rest of the way — only one on target. The effort had EC’s cheering fans on their feet most of the last two minutes.
“We played most of the schedule in a 4-4-2, but our last two games we switched to a 3-5-2, which gives us two defensive mids,” Levis said. “That gives us five guys on the ball to stop them because we knew they were a good passing team. We knew we had to stop them down the middle because they play the ball wide. We knew our forwards could get the job done and we’d have to knock them down in back.”
Mission accomplished. The victory earned the Panthers (13-3-1) a berth in a Brunswick district semifinal on the road at 7 p.m. Monday. The opponent and site will be determined. Copley ends its season 9-5-4.
It was a nerve-wracking night for the EC crowd, which saw the Panthers nearly surrender an own-goal less than two minutes into the match. It came on a blooped shot over the defense deep in the EC box and nearly eluded Panthers goalkeeper Frank Sanabria.
But Sanabria, reacting quickly, took control a split second before the ball went into the net behind him.
“I was a little nervous coming into the game,” said Sanabria, a freshman. “I didn’t realize my hands were separated too far apart and the ball went right through. But I made sure I got back and made up for my mistake.”
Saxton, the Panthers’ senior scoring leader, had both goals. His first put EC on top 1-0 in the sixth minute, with an assist from senior midfielder Vinnie Pierro.
“We were at the top of the box and pushing and Vinnie slid the ball to me,” Saxton said. “I just pushed it to the right and put it in the side of the net. It was very well-played as a team.”
The game-winner was a textbook free kick from nearly 30 yards.
“I missed a free kick earlier, but I’ve been working on those after practice,” said Saxton. “I thought I hit the first one well, but when the second one went in, it was just pure exhilaration. This was a big win, because people have been saying we play a softer schedule.”
It was a 1-1 tie at halftime. Copley, with the offensive heat turned up, scored in the 27th minute on a goal by sophomore Sam Galloway. Somehow Galloway found the ball on his foot in a scramble deep in the EC box and moved in for the score, despite a nice effort by Panthers defender Matt Bir, a sophomore.
The goal came less than a minute after a Copley attack that saw Phil Ferguson move in alone, then miss a basically wide-open EC net as Sanabria moved out to cut down the angle. Some thought it should have been an easy goal for the Indians’ senior forward. Others thought Ferguson was way offside on the play.
Elyria Catholic had several chances to blow the game open following Saxton’s second goal. Jimmy Zambo hit a low shot on goal in the 55th minute, and a short time later the Panthers’ Andrew Bir put a nice pass at the foot of Alex Miehls, who got a shot off as Copley keeper Mitch Ivasku came out to make the save.
Copley, applying unrelenting pressure in the last five minutes, earned a free kick after an EC foul. Nick Thomas sent a bullet toward the Panthers goal, but the defense blocked it and Matt Bir cleared to midfield on a play that put EC fans on their feet.
“I had pressure coming up on my back side, so I slid in and tried to get the clear-out,” Bir said. “They’re an aggressive team and they’re going to pressure you all night. They challenge tough, but these are the games you train for.”
Mike Wisnor, EC’s winningest boys soccer coach, was a happy camper.
“We scouted them and had a pretty good understanding of how they play,” Wisnor said of the Indians. “They’re a great team. That part of the state (Akron area) plays great soccer. We knew we’d have our hands full, but our boys played a great game.”
Elyria Catholic 2, Copley 1
GOALS: (C) Sam Galloway (27th minute); (EC) Anthony Saxton 2 (6th, 48th minute).
ASSISTS: (EC) Vinnie Pierro.
SHOTS: Copley 11, Elyria Catholic 15.
SHOTS ON FRAME: Copley 4, Elyria Catholic 8.
SAVES: (C) Mitch Ivasku 6, Kevin Ivasku 1; (EC) Frank Sanabria 5.
CORNER KICKS: Copley 4, Elyria Catholic 2.
GOAL KICKS: Copley 7, Elyria Catholic 6.
OFFSIDE: Copley 1, Elyria Catholic 0.
HAND BALLS: Copley 1, Elyria Catholic 1.
OTHER INFRACTIONS: Copley 14, Elyria Catholic 10.
CARDS: (C) Mitch Ivasku yellow, 19th minute; (EC) Saxton yellow, 51st minute.
HALFTIME: Elyria Catholic 1, Copley, 1.