Note: This recap appears in the Thursday, Sept. 19 newspaper on Page A6.
A cross-county rivalry is supposed to be a tense affair with each team’s strengths to be on stellar display. And that’s exactly what the knowledgeable crowd witnessed on Tuesday night in Athens.
As a setup, the Alexander Spartans feature up top speed while the Athens Bulldogs have the defenders to negate that element while also bringing some velocity to the pitch. But there was one ingredient to this soccer alchemy that would prove to be the prime catalyst.
The Spartans were looking to end a two-game slide and hopefully drop the Dogs under .500. At the beginning, Athens put together some nifty runs into the Spartan defense with Caroline Brandes and Mariah Heflin forcing two corner kicks in the first five minutes. Athens could not create a finish from those opportunities, however.
Then it was the visitors turn to attack. Amora Albano cleared the right side defense ten minutes into the match and headed to the strings with pace. Bulldog keeper Nikki Bean came up to cut the angle and stifle the shot. A few moments later, she smothered a near post shot from Marlee Grinstead. Bean was becoming that essential key to the game in the first half.
A great battle was developing with Taylor Meadows and Bulldog defender Emma Dabelko. But twice, Meadows sped clear of the defense to be one on one with the junior keeper midway through the period. Twice Bean came off her line to get the ball off the attack foot and keep the Spartans scoreless.
Brandes manufactured a great shot that should have been a tally but skittered wide of the framework about ten minutes later as the Bulldogs began to live in the Spartan defensive third. Sophomore Osha Backus worked free and powered an attempt that missed the strings by the narrowest of margins with under ten to go in the half.
A few minutes later, the first score of the match happened. A handling infraction was called on the defense about twenty yards to the left of the goal. Brandes sent the free kick to the far side of Spartan netminder Emma Pennington’s cage. There, Brigid McSteen collected the ball and tapped it into the webwork for the first goal of the game. McSteen has always managed to find the nets when she faces the Spartans so her string was intact.
But Bean would prove her worth once again shortly thereafter. Meadows broke free of the defense and charged into the danger zone. The savvy junior keeper challenged and denied the Spartan speedster for the third time in the half, which ended the scoring threats for both teams going into the break.
Spartan coach Tom Fauber credited Bean as the difference but felt his side could have done more. “We had an offensive advantage early on and should have done more to finish those shots against her. It was frustrating to watch us do everything but finish.”
Bulldog mentor Jason Schroer felt his squad was following the game plan well, substituting freely and at times sending in five subs at a time. “We were doing what it took to get the game, to keep them running. Bean’s deep release kicks were helping add to making them run. I was very happy with the set piece play that Brigid (McSteen) had. She had a great finish on that ball to get that goal. She likes to score against Alexander.”
The second stanza was a back and forth affair and the Spartans were down one player due to an injury. The subs kept coming for Schroer and the ‘Dogs started to control more of the run of play. Midway through the second forty, a four minute span changed the game.
First, Heflin found herself alone on the right side of the Alexander goal when two Spartans collided and did not clear a ball in the box. She calmly collected the errant sphere and pocketed it into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
Then, a minute later Albano put on a dribbling exhibition along the touch line and parked one past Bean to half the Athens’ advantage to 2-1 giving renewed hope to the visitors. Bean saved the Bulldogs again a few ticks of the clock later when she climbed the ladder to corral a high, hard shot from Mikayla Kunkel.
The hopes were short lived, however. With the Bulldogs in full attack mode, the ball bounced around the Spartan penalty area where probably twenty different feet had a touch on the ball. As it caromed around, and as karma would have it, it bounced out to sophomore Karma Fugate. She one-touched it into the strings to regain the two goal lead for the home side.
Effectively all scoring was done for the remaining eighteen minutes of the game though the action was frenetic. Athens gained the victory and the bragging rights until the next meeting in Albany.
And Schroer considers that next match should be another tough one. “We know we’ll have a tough time when we go to their place and they’ll give us everything they got. That will come after a heavy part of our schedule but we’re going to enjoy this one tonight. We’ll be ready.” Now standing at 4-3, the Bulldogs will head to Logan Elm on Saturday followed by games at Logan and Warren.
Fauber reiterated his frustration and commented that “we didn’t seem to anything right at times.”
With three losses in a row, the Spartans will hope to get back on track with a trip to Gallia Academy on Thursday.
Athens 1 2 3
Alex 0 1 1
Athens McSteen (Brandes) 1st 06:07 1-0
Athens Heflin 2nd 22:17 2-0
Alex Albano 2nd 21:10 2-1
Athens Fugate 2nd 18:36 3-1