Nothing’s supposed to be easy at tournament time. For Medina’s soccer teams, district championship Saturday proved almost impossible, yet both came away with wins, trophies and regional berths.
In the opener of a day-night double-header, the girls team pulled out a 3-2 overtime thriller after squandering a 2-0 lead to Copley in the last four minutes of regulation. The boys team followed with a 1-0 win over Highland, making an early goal stand up and withstanding a 40-minute second-half onslaught.
The double-header theme will continue into the week, as both Medina squads will face Westlake in regional semifinals.
The girls team, which improved to 12-5-2, was set to play the Demons on Thursday (Nov. 1) at Rocky River. Medina lost 2-1 to Westlake (11-6-1) earlier this year, but was employing almost all junior varsity players in the match, the result of near-team-wide suspensions.
The boys team upped its record to 11-4-2. Its meeting with Westlake was set to take place on Halloween night at Nordonia. Westlake defeated Strongsville in the Rocky River District final 1-0. Medina beat Strongsville earlier this season, also 1-0. The Bees did not face the Demons.
The winners of both regional semis will advance to Saturday finals at sites to be determined.
The girls team had the closer of the two shaves, thanks to Copley’s resilience. The Indians (9-8-2) trailed 2-0 with less than five minutes to go before rallying. The tying goal came with 42 seconds left.
Medina regrouped, though, and controlled overtime, scoring with 1:38 left in the first extra 15-minute period when sophomore Lauren Rafie corralled a cross from Alex Root on the left side of the goal and drove the ball into the net.
“I’m like in shock right now,” said Rafie, who started the year on junior varsity but worked her way into the rotation. “I can’t stop smiling. I’m just so excited.
“The goalie just barely touched it and I just followed it. I was honestly kind of scared I was going to miss it. The goal was wide open and I was like, ‘I’ve got to make this.’”
The Bees looked like they might have an easy time after jumping to a quick 1-0 lead that stood until halftime. When Nicole Bennett’s second goal of the game, which came after Copley’s goalie wandered well away from the net, gave Medina a 2-0 edge with 16 minutes left, there was no sign that the Indians were about to roar back.
Copley, though, had been through it before. The Indians trailed Wadsworth 3-1 in the second half a game earlier and came all the way back and won in a shootout.
“This was our first time in a situation like this and for Copley, they did it four days ago,” Bees coach Doug Coreno said. “They had confidence.
“I thought my kids showed a lot of maturity to stay composed and play their game and come out and play good soccer in the first overtime period and come out and get the win.”
Like the girls squad, Medina’s boys jumped to a lead in the first five minutes. Junior Aaron Liezert scored his 15th goal of the year on a pass from senior Nate Libertowski. Medina’s offense would be scarcely heard from the rest of the way, registering just four more shots, two on goal.
Highland, on the other hand, was all over the place, constantly putting pressure on Medina’s defense. The Hornets (14-3-2) only managed one shot on goal in the game, but took 14 shots, many sailing either just high or just wide.
Highland also had 11 corner kicks, an indication of how much the ball was in Medina’s defensive third.
“It was a classic case of bending many times and not breaking,” Bees coach Mark Malikowski said. “Coming in we knew they were really, really good at set pieces. And the number of corners and long throws we gave them, I just didn’t think we could give up that many and not give up a goal and we did.”
Junior goalie Dean McNeil made just one save officially, but went in the air several times to snag corner kicks and crosses. He praised his teammates in front of him for keeping the Hornets from getting clean looks at the net.
“We were defending for 40 minutes and we did a helluva job of it,” he said.
Adding to the drama was a free kick awarded to the Hornets with 12.4 seconds left, about five yards outside the penalty area. Highland senior Paul Burns, who had narrowly missed multiple rockets throughout the game, had one last chance.
Malikowski, meanwhile, got an eerie sense of déjà vu.
“The similarities from the last 30 seconds of tonight to Copley last year … the opportunity to clear the ball, a free kick from the same spot … it was a nightmare,” the Bees coach said, recalling the play that ended Medina’s season last year. “I would have had nightmares for the rest of my life.”
Burns either lost his footing heading or caught a cleat on the way to the ball. Either way, his final attempt was weak – “He didn’t hit it real well, which was fortunate,” Malikowski said – and easily cleared by Medina, much to the delight of McNeil, who wasn’t looking forward to getting in the way of the would-be missile.
“I was confident that I would save it,” the Bees goalie said with a grin.
He and his teammates had plenty to smile about. For the first time since 2007, they were headed to regionals. The girls squad, back for the first time since its state title season of 2009, is heading there with them.