Kirtland opened the defense of its Division III state championship on Thursday with a 3-0 win over Mother Nature and the visiting Wickliffe Blue Devils in a sectional championship game at Recreation Park.
“The weather conditions weren’t ideal, but I thought we did a good job of adjusting,” said Kirtland coach Ivica Miljak. “Our touches were a little heavy at the beginning but we were able to get into a little bit of a rhythm later in the first half.”
Erika Zschuppe and Bella Piazza found the back of the net in the first half for the Hornets, who improved to 11-3-3. Stephanie Drazetic scored in the second half.
“It’s always nice to see a few different names on the scoresheet,” Miljak said. “They man-marked Erika for most of the first half so it got pretty congested in the middle. We shifted her wide to try to open up some space centrally and I think we were able to generate some more flow in the attack. Wickliffe was a bit more attack-minded in the second half, which opened up the game a little more, and we were able to create a couple of chances there as well.”
Zschuppe’s goal was her 43rd of the season while Drazetic scored for the second time.
Piazza’s goal was her first of the year.
“It felt really cool scoring a goal and making a big play, especially being the first playoff game of the season,” she said. “It all started with Reilly (Greenlee) taking the ball down to the end line and crossing it in. Luckily, it deflected off an opponent’s chest right to my feet. I hit it the first time into the back of the net. I can’t wait to see what more is to come with this season and I’m so grateful to experience all of it with this amazing team.”
After winning the state title last season, the Hornets have a giant target on their backs, which only has added to the pressure the team has faced this season.
But, Piazza and her teammates have taken that challenge in stride.
“Handling the pressure all started with our warmup and talk before the game,” she said. “During warmups, we made sure to keep our focus completely on the game ahead of us and nothing else. Along with this, with coach (Ed) Bradac making a return, I, as well the whole team, definitely had a mindset change and we really wanted to show off our hard work we put in this whole season for him. This past week especially, we’ve done a lot of technical training and really put the work in that involves high intensity and competitiveness.”
Kirtland also had to contend with a Wickliffe team intent on packing the box to limit the Hornets’ scoring potential.
That’s a tactic the Hornets likely will see throughout the postseason.
“We’ll have to get used to teams sitting deep against us,” Miljak said. “Wickliffe had nine or 10 players behind the ball several times. They executed their plan pretty well defensively–they frustrated us at times. But Giuliana (Vladic), Sofia (Huang), Stephanie, and Clare (Davidson) are all technically skilled in the center of our midfield, they were able to figure it out and open things up a little bit, control the tempo of the game.”
Despite Wickliffe’s defensive strategy, the Hornets executed their game plan well enough to advance in the playoffs.
“We were able to move the ball around pretty well and get our backline involved to try to draw Wickliffe out of their deep block,” Miljak said. “Corinne (Greenlee) did a really nice job of creating from the back today. It adds a different layer to your game when you have a player with that kind of ability back there. Overall, tonight was a good test of what we might see in the next game or two, so it was good to see us work through it and figure some things out.”
The shutout was the third of the season for the Hornets, who will host Columbia in a district semifinal on Monday.