BY J. PATRICK EAKEN | MIRROR SPORTS — The Anthony Wayne girls soccer team is one game away from playing in the Division I state championship.
The Generals, ranked second in the final statewide coaches poll, improved to 21-0 last Saturday with a 3-2 victory over No. 3 Strongsville (16-3-2).
AW took on No. 7 Medina (17-2-2) on Tuesday, returning to the same location where the Generals defeated Strongsville: Strobel Field at Cedar Point Stadium in Sandusky.
A win over the Bees would send AW into the state final this Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium, the state fairgrounds home of the Columbus Crew MLS professional soccer team.
They would face the winner of No. 8 Dublin Coffman (17-1-5) and No. 4 West Chester Lakota West (20-0-2).
To win the regional championship, the Generals had to square off with a Strongsville team that was determined, despite the fact AW had defeated the Mustangs, 4-0, during the regular season.
Strongsville is the defending state runner-up, losing in last year’s state championship to Beavercreek.
“They’ve been time and time again in the state finals, so that is a storied tradition program. To beat that quality of a team two times in one season is pretty magical, to be honest,” said AW coach Lori Williams.
It was a physical matchup that saw a combined 24 fouls, but 20 of those were whistled against Anthony Wayne.
“I think every time we gave it to them, they gave it right back,” senior forward Hannah Rybicki said. “For us to keep that lead was pretty difficult.
“It was great competition. They work really hard – just as hard as we do – and it was pretty cool to get to play against a team like that.”
There were very few scoring opportunities by either team. AW had just four shots on goal, while Strongsville had six, but the Generals made the best use of theirs, scoring on three of them.
“We knew we weren’t going to have a ton of chances, but we knew we had to (score) with the ones we had and I thought we did that well today,” Williams said.
It was the Gardner girls who led the act, too, with sophomore Brynn Gardner getting one goal and senior defenseman Emilie Gardner getting the other two. Two of the goals came off set pieces.
“Even though we were the ones to get the goals, it was really a team effort,” Emilie said. “That includes everyone on the team, including the bench and the back line and the starters – everyone on the field contributed and I’m glad because we were just able to put it in the back of the net and come away with the win.
“It was a tough game and we knew coming into the game it was going to be a tough one. We really came out and showed them what we were made of.”
“It was very physical, but we didn’t take it and we matched them,” Brynn Gardner added.
AW struck first, as a cross sent left by senior forward Jocelyn Crossley was met by Brynn Gardner, whose header found the back of the net, putting the Generals up 1-0 with 31:18 to go in the first half.
“Truly, it was (Crossley) who crossed it – I was just there and got into good position,” Brynn Gardner said.
Then Brynn and Emilie paired up to make things happen on a set piece.
Brynn’s corner kick was timed perfectly by Emilie, who one-timed the ball into the net for the Generals’ second goal with 18:04 left in the half, putting AW up 2-0, which stood until halftime.
In that first half, each team had two corner kicks, but Anthony Wayne forced seven Strongsville goal kicks while senior goalkeeper Keaton Grabarczyk needed just two, plus she had three saves.
That was reversed in the second half, as the Mustangs’ offensive pressure became relentless, forcing 12 AW goal kicks, while Strongsville had to deliver just eight.
In addition, Anthony Wayne had to fight off its fouls, being whistled for 20 fouls that led to Strongsville free kicks, while AW benefitted from just four Strongs-ville fouls.
It was one of those fouls that led to the Mustangs’ first score. Sophomore midfielder Libby Majka was awarded a direct kick from just outside the box and her boot resulted in a score by junior defenseman Madi Snyder 3:32 into the second half.
Down by just one score, Strongsville pushed even harder, getting nine shots off, but only three were on goal. The Generals had just one shot on goal the entire second half, but it was a good one.
Emilie Gardner caught senior midfielder Shelby Herrington’s corner kick in mid-air and redirected the ball past the Mustangs’ senior keeper Reanna Laurell and into the back of the net, giving AW its two-goal lead back with 18:10 to go.
It was the second time Emilie Gardner redirected a corner kick into the net.
“It’s amazing how, on our corners, how we are finishing super well throughout the tournament,” Rybicki said. “That’s great that she was able to finish both of them.”
Then, as luck would have it, an own goal scored by Strongsville made things tight again.
A shot by Strongsville sophomore forward Coley Sidloski was deflected by an AW defender into the net, making it a one-score game again at 3-2 with 6:06 remaining.
The Mustangs had additional opportunities in the final minutes, but three second-half non-goalie saves by Emilie Gardner saved the game, including one where Grabarczyk had to chase the ball out of the box.
The only other Anthony Wayne player to get a shot on goal besides the Gardner sisters was Rybicki, who had a chance in the first half on a one-on-one with the Strongs-ville keeper.
Still, it was a special day for the Gardner girls.
“To play with my sister is truly something special, but we are all best friends and we’re not done yet,” Brynn promised.