Independence’s first trip to the Division III regional championship game couldn’t have been any more dramatic.
The Blue Devils and Van Buren were tied, 1-1, after regulation and two overtime periods, which forced a penalty kick shootout to determine the winner. Independence converted four tries while Van Buren connected on just three in an intense and emotional tie-breaker.
“It was mostly emotional because we have been (in the regional semifinals) these past two years and finally got over the hump,” Independence coach Ryan MacRaild said. “A 20-win season was a goal early on and we met that as well.”
Sam Belitz gave the Blue Devils an early lead when he finished off a Casey McGhee through ball.
That lead held until midway through the second half when Van Buren capitalized on an opening in the Independence defensive third.
Neither team mounted much of an attack the rest of the way.
“It was a bit of a stalemate at that point,” MacRaild said. “Neither team was building anything substantial. I figured it could go either way for either team. We were really well matched.”
MacRaild and assistant coach Gino Manocchio were prepared for a postseason shootout.
“We scouted our own guys at training over the past two weeks to pick the playoffs guys,” MacRaild said. “Gino wrote the list. We had the same first five.”
Adam Leibel, Christian Streibel, Kyle Streibel and Elek McDonald each buried the ball in the net with McDonald’s sealing the 2-1 shootout win.
“There was a ton of pressure to finish the PK and bring an end to the battle that the game was,” McDonald said. “All I could do was focus on the ball and pick my corner. All of my practice on penalty kicks really paid off. When the ball hit the back of the net it took me a bit to process what happened. That feeling is incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced; just pure joy.”
The Blue Devils, who improved to 20-0, will play Archbold (19-1) in the regional championship game on Saturday at Port Clinton High School. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:00 p.m.
Archbold previously defeated the Blue Devils in a 2016 regional semifinal, 3-1.
“Archbold is maybe the best team left in the tournament after beating (defending state runner-up) Ottawa Hills,” MacRaild said. “They are fast and strong and skilled. We’re going to have to play at a higher level. Nothing is going to be easy at this point, but it’s awesome to be in the Elite Eight. I’m very proud of the boys. We had a great group of traveling fans and I was very impressed with the class Van Buren played with.”
McDonald hopes his third trip to regionals ends better than the previous two.
“Losing the regional semis the past two years was very frustrating, but to finally win that next game gives us a huge confidence booster heading to the next game,” he said. “All we can do is put in the work at practice and give it all we have to get that next result.”