Justin Neighbor’s header with 7:19 remaining broke a 1-1 tie to send the Olentangy Orange boys soccer team to its first district title appearance since 2012.
“It’s been a battle all year long,” said Orange coach Scott Bryant, who was fighting back tears. “I get emotional thinking about it – these guys deserve something good like that to happen.”
Grant Simon centered to Neighbor, who beat Thomas Worthington goalkeeper Jason Hamzee to the right to give the Pioneers a 2-1 victory at home in a Division I district semifinal game Wednesday night in Lewis Center.
“I thought (Simon) was going to cross it in, so I got in there in the mix and it went off of my head and just went in,” Neighbor said.
It was a big moment for the junior midfielder, who spent much of the season battling his way back from an injury.
“He started the year on the (junior varsity team) because he had a pretty bad knee injury over the club season,” Bryant said. “We brought him along slowly – probably a little slower than he wanted to. He’s a very good player and he probably needs to be on the field a little bit more.”
The Cardinals came in to the match with victories over Delaware Hayes and Olentangy in the first two rounds.
Thomas has a lot of success with set pieces, like long throw-ins by the strong-armed Ben Dawson, something that Orange (8-10-1) was well-versed with after a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals Oct. 11 in Worthington.
“They’re very dangerous on set-pieces and long throw-ins,” Bryant said. “We gave them two goals on set pieces on their throw-ins last time, so we’ve been working defending those.”
The Pioneers were solid defensively, holding Thomas out of the shot column until a Jaxson Szabo header off a Dawson corner kick sailed high in the 57th minute.
“We wanted to be organized because they’re fast … they’re fast everywhere,” Bryant said. “We worked really hard at being organized and being tough to break down and the guys did a great job back there.”
Sam Sarfo broke free and found himself one-on-one with the goalie, who upended him to prevent the go-ahead goal in a scoreless game in the 52nd minute.
The play was similar to the one that cost Olentangy goalie Trent Trees a red card in Thomas’ 4-3 victory in the second round Saturday.
Hamzee was issued a yellow card and was replaced by Josue Joya.
“It looked like he was the last defender and typically that would be a (red) card,” Bryant said. “The referee explained that it didn’t look like (Sarfo) was going to get to the ball – that was his rationale.”
Zach Stitler made good on the ensuing free kick, burying the 23-yarder high on the left side to give Orange a 1-0 edge with 27:17 left.
“I give credit to Zach for understanding that they had a cold keeper in there and just putting that on goal because that’s tough for any keeper to come in there cold like that,” Bryant said.
But, Thomas put the pressure on the Pioneers. The Cardinals finally made good on those set pieces they’re so known for when Szabo found the back of the net on a header off a Dawson corner kick to tie it 1-1 with 21:02 remaining.
Orange put the pressure on in the first half, but couldn’t take advantage of a 6-0 advantage in shots.
The best opportunity came in the 36th minute when Sarfo worked a give-and-go with Neighbor. Sarfo had a one-on-one opportunity against Hamzee, but slid the shot wide to the left.
“It seemed like we had the majority of the play, but we’ve got to finish our chances and we finally did that,” Bryant said.
Hamzee finished with five saves in goal for Thomas (8-9-2) and Nick Cutler stopped three shots for the Pioneers.
Orange advances to the district final against second-seeded Dublin Coffman Saturday at a site and time to be announced in a rematch of a Sept. 1 matchup won 3-1 by the Shamrocks.
Also: New Albany 2, Liberty 0 (Division I district semifinal).
Third-seeded Big Walnut continued its dominant postseason run, handling visiting and seventh-seeded Bexley 3-1 in a Division II district semifinal Wednesday night in Sunbury.
The Golden Eagles, who opened tourney play with a 4-0 win over Johnstown-Monroe, broke the scoring seal when Kelly Kreager found the back of the net in the first half.
Emma Padgett doubled the lead later in the contest and Kreager all but sealed the deal with her second of the game down the stretch.
The Lions added a late tally to smooth out the scoring summary.
The win moves Big Walnut into Saturday’s district championship, its second straight, where it’ll play fifth-seeded Hartley at a time and place to be determined.
Also: Jonathan Alder 2, Buckeye Valley 1 (Division II district semifinal).
Orange def. Mount Vernon 25-17, 25-27, 26-24, 25-15 (Division I district semifinal); Dublin Coffman def. Hayes 25-11, 25-14, 25-18 (Division I district semifinal).