TWINSBURG — Elyria Catholic’s high-flying offense was grounded at the worst possible time.
The Panthers couldn’t make the most of their limited opportunities against Kirtland, which played stout defense in ending EC’s season with a 5-0 victory in a Division III girls soccer regional final at Twinsburg High School on Saturday.
“They played a deep line which negated our through ball,” EC coach Ryan Manner said of the Hornets. “But in the first half, if you take away those two corners, I thought we were playing our game and things were going pretty well. But we knew they were strong on set plays, we knew it was coming and we just couldn’t stop it. Those set plays really bit us today.”
While the score was not indicative of the game — Kirtland (14-4-3) added two goals in the final three minutes — the Hornets’ defense proved impossible to crack. Elyria Catholic (15-6) came into the game outscoring its opponents 20-0 in the postseason, but was limited to just eight shots, three on goal.
EC senior Ryan Kunkle was clearly the focus of the Kirtland defense. Kunkle, who entered the game with 42 goals, including nine in the postseason, and fresh off a hat trick against Springfield in the regional semifinals Tuesday, drew at least two, sometimes three, defenders every time she touched the ball.
She didn’t get a good shot off for 20 minutes. That one came on a free kick from about 20 yards out that keeper Gabrielle Culotta saved.
“They definitely knew that I was the girl to get the ball up top,” she said. “Whenever Emilie (Uhnak) or (Makenna Hodges) gets the ball, they’re always looking for me. They definitely knew that and played well.”
Kirtland sophomore Tea Petric was tasked with shadowing Kunkle and did a good job of slowing her up until the rest of the defense could recover or stopping her at the point of attack while a second defender came over to help.
“I just knew that I had to keep guarding her so she wouldn’t have a chance to shoot or score,” Petric said. “I had to contain her so she didn’t get any chances. Our team is a family. We defend as a team and make sure nobody is left behind.”
Compounding things for EC was the loss of Hodges. The senior midfielder suffered a right knee injury in the first half and did not play in the second.
Hodges is one of the Panthers’ top scorers and, more importantly, shot creators. Without her on the field, EC was limited to three shots in the second half, none on goal, compared to five in the first half , three on goal.
Hodges did have a near-goal that would have tied the game at 1 in the first half. She fired a beautiful free kick from 28 yards out on the left side of the goal, hooking it into the upper-right corner of the net, but Culotta jumped as high as she could and deflected it with the tips of her fingers, sending it out of bounds.
The Hornets weren’t generating a lot of offense either, taking only took three shots in the first half, but two resulted in goals. Both came on set plays off a corner kick.
“I think we played toe-to-toe with them for the first 20 minutes, but then we started to get some injuries and we just didn’t have the depth to stay with them,” Manner said. “I think we held with them the majority of the game, and even possessed for a lot of the first half, but those two mistakes on the corners will bite you.”
While the loss was disappointing, the Panthers could take solace knowing they were making their fourth trip to the regional final in the last six seasons and had rebounded strongly from last season when they went 5-10-2 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
This year they tripled their win total fell just short of making it to state.
“It was a great season,” Kunkle said. “I wish we would have gone further. Ending with (my teammates), right here, all together and fighting as hard as we did, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
KIRTLAND 5, ELYRIA CATHOLIC 0
GOALS: (K) Maya Zovko (13:03, 77:01), Jenna Sayle (28:27), Katie McCollister (64:43), Mia Rini (79:21)
ASSISTS: (K) Lidia Rodin, Hannah Vouk
SHOTS: Kirtland 11, Elyria Catholic 8
SHOTS ON GOAL: Kirtland 9, Elyria Catholic 3
SAVES: (K) Gabrielle Culotta 3; (EC) Megan Scheibelhut 3, Saide Hutsenpiller 1
FOULS: Kirtland 11, Elyria Catholic 15
CORNER KICKS: Kirtland 8, Elyria Catholic 4
FREE KICKS: Kirtland 15, Elyria Catholic 11
YELLOW CARDS: Kirtland 2, Elyria Catholic 3
GOAL KICKS: Kirtland 4, Elyria Catholic 9
HALFTIME: Kirtland, 2-0