KINNIKINNICK — Two goals by Lucas Hanes certainly played a part, but the biggest reason that the Athens boys’ soccer season stopped one step short of the Final Four was that Unioto’s defense lived up to its reputation as well as its moniker.

For the first 75 minutes of Saturday’s Division II regional final at Zane Trace High School, the Shermans (17-3-1) were as impenetrable as tanks, holding a line that kept the Bulldogs at bay, and although Athens (13-4-4) peppered them with an increasing volley as the game wore on, it simply didn’t have enough firepower left in its arsenal to overcome its early deficit.

The mounting injuries, which the Bulldogs were able to play through in the first four games of their postseason run, were a factor, if not the decisive one.

“So many injuries,” lamented coach Simon Diki. “We had three or four players who we thought might be able to give us a little more today than they did. They tried, they really did, but [Unioto] is a good team with some really great players, and we just didn’t have enough energy to keep up.”

Diki could have substituted “speed” for “energy” and been just as accurate. The Shermans had speed to spare, in the middle with sophomore River Pettigrew and senior Antonio Cruz and on the outside with senior Cameron Kendrick and Hanes, and it was their ability to move the ball quickly from one area to the other — especially on the counterattack — that was the ultimate difference in the game.

Hanes’ first goal, in fact, came less than a minute after Unioto goalkeeper Micha Geise made his first save, dropping to his knees to scoop up a skidding shot from 35 yards out off of the foot of Bulldog sophomore Austin Jaunarajs. Geise whipped the ball out to Cruz, who in turn fed Pettigrew. A few long dribbles put the ball squarely in the attack zone, from where Pettigrew found Hanes on his left, open in between the numbers painted on the football field’s 20-yard line.

The sophomore collected Pettigrew’s pass and, before any retreating defenders could reach him, launched a shot that flew into the net on the far side, top shelf, the only part of it that Athens goalkeeper Nathan Kallet, even laying out fully extended, could not reach.

Hanes struck again in the game’s 57th minute, this time with only slightly less suddenness. After the Shermans’ Kamden Smith outfought Russell Otieno for a 50-50 ball along the midfield left sideline, he poked the ball out ahead of Hanes. The Bulldogs’ Luke Frost had been effectively mirroring Hanes for most of the half, but this time, the junior misjudged his angle.

Hanes reached the ball first and then stopped on a dime. Frost glided past for only a moment, but that was all Hanes needed, cutting back before racing in and once more beating Kallet to the far corner.

“We knew that they were going to play outside,” said Diki. “It’s what they’ve done all year. That is the way they like to play, and it’s what happened on both goals. Tonight, we just didn’t have enough speed to execute the game plan and the instructions.”

In between the scores, Unioto’s defensive combination of senior Asher McBee on the left side, sophomore Cameron Kendrick on the right, and senior Ashton Sigler in the middle dominated the game, limiting Athens to a series of attempts that either went high, wide, or that harmlessly glided into the arms of Geise, if they made it airborne at all.

The Bulldogs managed to slip by the trio only twice, the first time on a counter with 11 minutes left in the first half. Kallet started the opportunity by charging out to intercept a cross from the Shermans’ Joe Lafreniere. The junior threw the ball out wide right, where it eventually found its way to Walji Dadem.

Dadem had a step, and McBee had little choice but to take him down with a sliding tackle in the box.

Just as he had done in Athens’ district final win against Gallia Academy, junior Owen Buckley took the penalty shot. This time, however, the shot went high and caromed off the football crossbar.

The Bulldogs cashed in on their second opportunity, with Jaunarajs managing to get the better of Sigler on a classic two-man weave down the middle of the pitch, finally scooting the ball past Geise and into the left corner of the net, but by then, less than four minutes remained, and when Pettigrew headed Zane Evans’ free kick out of the attack zone, Unioto was headed to the state semifinals for the first time since 2004.


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