INDEPENDENCE—Kirtland scored three unanswered goals in the final 40 minutes to defeat Cuyahoga Heights 4-2 in a Division III district championship game at Stan Skoczen Stadium on Thursday.
The Hornets, who defeated the Redskins in the regular season 5-0, trailed 2-1 at halftime.
“You try to prepare them and prep them but they’re high school girls and in the back of their mind what they’re thinking about is, ‘Wow, we beat this team 5-0 in the first 20 minutes and everybody sat so it’s going to be that easy,’” Kirtland coach Ed Bradac said. “What sometimes gets overlooked is this is potentially their last game so if it’s their last game they’re’ going to fight as hard as they can. I knew they were going to come in and it would be a much harder game than we had the first time.”
Freshman Erika Zschuppe gave the Hornets an early 1-0 lead when she broke down a pair of defenders and placed a perfect strike into the bottom left corner.
That lead was short-lived.
Cuyahoga Heights freshman Regan Sturgill responded with the first of her two goals just a minute and a half later to tie the contest.
Sturgill gave the Redskins a 2-1 lead when she was in the right place at the right time to put the right touch on a deflected shot.
“She actually really stepped up today,” Cuyahoga Heights coach Christy Zawadzki said of Sturgill. “She was very composed. She got injured in our game against Wickliffe Monday so we weren’t sure how much she’d be able to play but she fought through it. You’ve got to love these girls. They step up when they need to and they played hard. They left it all on the field today. I’m so proud of them.”
Top-seeded Kirtland found itself trailing at halftime for the fifth time this season.
“It wasn’t a comforting feeling being down 2-1 at halftime but this was the fifth time this has happened to us,” Bradac said. “In all of those situations, we were able to come back and win the game. We just needed to get them in here at halftime because we don’t have halftimes. We had to explain some of the switches we were going to make.”
One key adjustment Bradac made involved swapping Gabby Piazza from one side to the other in order to slow down Sturgill. Tea Petric locked down the other side.
“We thought about doing that in the first half,” Bradac said. “Cuyahoga Heights wasn’t going to even attempt to play through the midfield so that can get frustrating. It’s literally from one end to the other so as soon as they got a ball they were kicking it as far as they could and the ball took some funny hops. We had some issue with the speed on the outside with Regan. We switched Tea and Gabby and I think that slowed everything down.”
When the Hornets took the field in the second half, Bradac, as he has done so many times before, emphasized the five-minute window of opportunity the Hornets should take advantage of as the Redskins settled into the second 40 minutes of play.
Lidia Rodin took that to heart and finished off a beautifully placed cross from Jenna Sayle to score the equalizer just three minutes into the half.
Zschuppe scored her second goal three and a half minutes later to give the Hornets a 3-2 lead.
“I have so much confidence in them and the way that they play and the schedule they’ve played. They were prepared for it,” Bradac said of the second half rally.
Maya Zovko added an insurance goal with 5:23 left in the game.
Zovko beat the defense and went one-on-one with the Cuyahoga Heights keeper. A quick pump fake didn’t get the desired result so Zovko tapped the ball through the keeper’s legs and into the net for a 4-2 lead.
“I faked the shot expecting her to dive one way and go the other way but she gave it to me so I had to take advantage of it,” Zovko said. “It’s not luck. You put there and aim and it goes.”
Zschuppe and Zovko, Kirtland’s leading scorers, made an on-field switch of their own late in the second half that made the difference in Zovko cutting through the middle straight to the net.
“We moved Maya back to midfield but Erika and Maya just made the switch,” Bradac said. “They have the freedom and the flexibility to do that. We have to trust them. We can’t be out on the field and tell them where to pass the ball. I love the fact that she has such composure and that she’s able to finish that. It was a great goal.”
Kirtland (17-2) advanced to the regional semifinals for the third time in the last four seasons. The Hornets will play Canfield South Range (13-7) on Tuesday at Solon.
Cuyahoga Heights closed out the year with a 15-3-2 record and a Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division championship.
“That game turned out way better than we thought it would. We were as shocked as anybody,” Zawadzki said of the 2-1 halftime advantage. “That was our plan since Monday, to just work hard. They are a definitely a tremendously skilled team, way more skilled than us, so we were going to try to kill them with being annoying. To go up 2-1 in the first half was a season excitement for us. They are incredible. They deserved to win that game and we are supporting them all the way through their state run. It’s never good to lose but it’s an honor to lose to that team.”