by Skip Snow
It had been 86 years since Rocky River High School captured a state championship in any sport. It had been, that is, until Friday afternoon, Nov. 8, at Columbus Crew Stadium.
With a pair of early goals, relentless pressure on the defense and a solid all-around display of team depth, Rocky River defeated Granville, 3-1, to capture the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division II Girls Soccer Championship on Friday.
“I just can’t say enough about the unselfish nature of this team, said Head Coach Pat Hopkins. “These girls have worked every day to get better and accomplish something special as a team.”
That something special came in a match played in the long shadows before a raucous crowd on a sunny-but-chilly autumn day at Crew Stadium. And its special for the entire school as well – it’s the first Pirate state championship since RRHS won Ohio’s track & field title in 1927.
That’s a fact Director of Athletics Mark Wagner knows all too well. “It’s been a long time since we have celebrated a state championship here, and this team deserves it,” said Wagner. “These girls represent the best in high school interscholastic athletics. They are good students, athletes, teammates and citizens.”
Rocky River’s well-rounded bunch came out of the gates strong, pressuring Granville throughout the early minutes of the contest. That pressure culminated with a goal in the seventh minute, when senior forward Grace Bennett split the defense and scored on a breakaway.
Six minutes later – at 31:13 – senior Abby Elinski put the Pirates up, 2-0, when she threaded a wide-angle dribbler into the net after a defensive misplay by the Blue Aces.
Granville netminder Tori Long was peppered with a slew of quality shots in an opening half that sent the two sides into the break with Rocky River leading, 2-0. Long’s opposite number – senior goalkeeper Sara Connelly – wasn’t under as much duress, but she came up big on a couple of quality first-half chances for the Blue Aces.
Connelly made a stop from point-blank range on a near collision with two players at 15:13. She then made a colossal leaping save at 9:20, batting Granville’s best chance of the period over the crossbar and out of play.
Granville halved the Rocky River lead in the 59th minute, when Nikki Cox found nylon on a penalty kick after a Pirate infraction in the box. The Pirates nearly answered in the 62ndminute, but Tori Long came through with a save on a golden opportunity for Rocky River in the shadow of the left post.
The Blue Aces goal and Long’s big save served to swing momentum to the Granville side. Talented midfield play for Rocky River helped the Pirates stem the tide, giving Connelly a reprieve in the middle minutes of the second stanza.
Grace Bennett – the owner of the afternoon’s first goal and Rocky River’s team captain – officially wrested the momentum of the game away from Granville in the 81st minute when she pinged a 5-yarder off the left post. The ball caromed back into the field of play back to the waiting right foot of Bennett, who booted into the net for Rocky River’s third goal of the match.
Seeing their goal in site, the Pirates did not yield a shot in the game’s final nine minutes. In fact, for the game Rocky River outshot Granville, 25-4.
A stout defense led by the play of Liesl Fahrenkopf, Eva Schneider, and Emily Soltes thwarted numerous Granville threats on the edge of the box. A clutch tackle by Soltes thwarted what was perhaps Granville’s last best chance on a two-on-one opportunity in the 74th minute.
In front of hundreds of maroon & white-clad Pirate faithful who made the trek to Columbus, Hopkins and his squad toppled the Blue Aces in a match that lasted an hour-and-45 minutes.
It turned out not to be too long to wait for a game result. Not compared to the previous 86 years of RRHS athletics.
Athletic Director Mark Wagner has been at the helm of Rocky River’s sports teams for two of those 86 years (since 2011), and he has the 1920s-vintage track & field hardware in his office.
That hardware now has some company.