By Kevin Connelly
The Canfield girls soccer team had seen this script before and was hoping for the same ending.
The Cardinals trailed Hathaway Brown for more than 67 minutes of Saturday’s Division II regional final match, but coming from behind is something they’ve become somewhat accustomed to in the postseason.
With less than 30 seconds left, and the Blazers clinging to a 1-0 lead, the Cardinals put what must have felt like all 11 players — at least to Hathaway Brown’s defense — inside of 20 yards.
The ball was thrown in toward the penalty box and jumped off the turf at Brecksville-Broadview Heights Field as if it were a bouncy ball, over the head of Blazers keeper Clair O’Brien, and off the head of Canfield’s Elena Billy.
The script was almost too surreal, even for the Cardinals.
So when midway through overtime, Hathaway Brown’s Melissa Vajskop put a near-perfect strike on the ball to deflect it off the right goal post and into the back of the net for a 2-1 Blazers victory, it went from a fairytale ending to another disappointing departure for the Cardinals.
“It’s really tough to get this far, come that close,” Cardinals coach Phil Simone said. “We knew going into the game it was going to be tight. To not come out on top is just heart-breaking.”
It turned out to be Vajskop’s story as the senior midfielder scored both of her team’s goals, with the first coming on a penalty kick after Canfield was called for a handball inside the box.
“She’s an amazing player,” Blazers coach Carmen Ptacek said of her co-captain. “She is a game-changer and that’s what she does best. She has won so many games for us this entire season, so I expected no less from her today and she came through for us.”
The penalty kick was one of only two shots Hathaway Brown had in the first 40 minutes. The teams finished the game with eight shots a piece, but Canfield had a 5-4 advantage in shots on goal.
“We kept fighting back, somehow we got that goal in the last 20-some seconds,” Simone said. “But [Vajskop] came out and pretty much dictated that overtime period. We struggled containing her.”
The game-winner came after Vajskop made two or three Cardinal defenders miss just outside the box. She tried to get the shot off with her right foot, which she said is the stronger of the two, but the left-footed opportunity was there, so she took it from the top left corner of the penalty area.
The ball was curving away from the net but caught the right goal post and deflected in.
“I tried it two times before and it didn’t work,” Vajskop said of the placement. “But finally that last time it worked. Unbelievable!”
It was a wet and windy afternoon which made the elements unpleasent for each side. Simone said he felt nerves played as much of a factor as the rain did in the early stages of the match.
The handball penalty came in the 12th minute of the match and put the Cardinals in an early hole once again. Scoring chances came at a premium, as both defenses were up to the task for much of the afternoon.
The loss gives Canfield its second consecutive regional final defeat and an unsatisfied feeling for a program that has built championship expectatons with its recent success.
“We lose a great bunch of kids this year and I’m sad to see them go,” Simone said. “We’ve got some younger kids and they’re gonna have to work in the offseason — a lot of hard work.”
Hathaway Brown advances to a state semifinal and will take on Rocky River on Tuesday.