District champions

The Athens Bulldogs celebrate after winning a Division II Southeast District title on Thursday. Athens defeated Gallia Academy 1-0 to advance to the regional tournament.

KINNIKINNICK — If you’re a fan of stubborn defense and superior goalkeeping, then Thursday night’s Division II district championship was your kind of game.

And if you were a duck, the weather would have been perfect, too.

The Athens boys overcame both the elements and Gallia Academy, converting a penalty kick in the final two minutes to claim the title, their 10th overall and their first since 2018, by the final score of 1-0 at Zane Trace High School.

It was the second straight rabbit that the sixth-seeded Bulldogs (12-3-4) had pulled out of their hat, following their overtime takedown of No. 3 Fairfield Union on Tuesday. This time, it was the Blue Devils (17-2-1), the district’s second seed, who were the victims of Athens’ late-game magic.

Sophomore Austin Jaunarajs, who like many of his teammates had seemed to be on the verge of a tally all night, sprinted between a pair of Gallia defenders to collect a long midfield pass. Now with the ball, he stuttered, turned, and the trio collided and fell in unison.

It was clearly a foul, but the question remained, did it happen in the box? The line judge, positioned on the Athens’ sideline, thought so and immediately raised his flag and began twirling it. The main official, however, who was trailing the play, wasn’t so sure, and he raced over to confer with his colleague. After several seconds, during which the clock ticked under two minutes, the official turned and pointed to the spot from where the penalty kick would be taken.

Braulio Rosas-Clouse set the ball down, but it was Owen Buckley who lined up to take the shot. Staring him down was the Blue Devils’ goalkeeper, Bryson Miller, who had played the role of nemesis perfectly to that point, turning away shot after shot, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

At contact, Miller dove to his left, but Buckley’s shot skidded across the slick turf in the opposite direction and into the back of the net for what would become the game-winner.

Given the driving rain and gusting winds, and with how both teams’ defenses and their respective netminders were playing, one physical slip-up and an ensuing penalty shot was perhaps the only fitting way this one was going to end.

The teams combined for just ten shots on goal, and Jaunarajs’ breakout, the one that led to Buckley’s score, represented the Bulldogs’ only serious scoring chance of the second half.

Just the way coach Simon Diki drew it up.

“The key for us was a new formation that we put in just for tonight,” he said. “We knew we had to contain them in the midfield, so we went to a 3-5-2 to try to keep them in the middle and to not allow them to get to the sidelines, and that’s what we did.”

It took Gallia Academy the better part of the first half to adjust, and by that time, Diki’s team seemed to have total control of the game’s tempo. The problem was, Miller was turning away everything delivered in his direction.

In the 9th minute, Buckley sent a cross from the right sideline over to Brady Jaunarajs, who was locked one-on-one with a Blue Devil in front of the goal but only eight yards out. The junior needed only a nanosecond to collect the pass and to send a rocket off his right foot, but while leaning to his right, Miller somehow contorted his torso and made a brilliant kick save that sent the ball careening off to the left.

Later in the half, the elder Jaunarajs found himself in front of the net again, but this time he spun amongst a pair of defenders and kicked a pass out to Rowan Featheringham, wide open on the right side. Featheringham delivered the shot, but Miller recovered, dived to his left, and now fully extended, poked the ball harmlessly away.

It might have been enough to make Athens frustrated that the match was still scoreless at halftime.

“That’s mostly what we talked about over the break,” said Diki. “It was about finishing. Any opportunity you get, you must treat it like it will be your only one. This is not like the regular season, when you get another chance. This is tournament soccer. You might only get one opportunity to score, but that’s all you need. You must finish.”

For his part, the Bulldogs’ keeper, junior Nathan Kallet, was on top of his game, too, making three noteworthy saves of his own — going high to tip away a free kick in the first half before coming out to knock down Keagan Daniels’ attempt and intercepting Brayden Burris’ header off a throw-in early in the second.

In other words, it was a total team effort, just like most district championships are.

The Bulldogs have won four district titles in the last seven seasons, and advance to the Division II regional semifinals. Athens will play either Dover or Maysville, as those East District teams are set to play Saturday morning.

The regional tournament game will be played Wednesday at a site to be determined.

“I am so very proud of the way we finished the season, and the way we continue to finish the season,” Diki said. “We have great kids, and we have great leaders. That is a good combination.”

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