Season openers, no matter what the sport, always produce surprises; some good, some bad.

Saturday’s soccer opener between the host Alexander Spartans and the mighty Minford Falcons produced one of the heartwarming variety for Falcons’ sophomore Sadie Hatfield.

Sargent Shayne Gay of the Ohio National Guard not only provided an inflatable tunnel for the teams’ first game, but was part of a much larger production.

After team introductions, Sgt Gay led the Spartans through the tunnel onto the pitch. Then the Falcons came out led by a very special guest.

Barely back from deployment twelve hours, Hatfield’s brother Tanner Hall brought the Falcons through the tunnel to the applause of the combined crowd after the announcement. It was a complete and tearful surprise for the sophomore and her mother who had no idea Hall would be at the game.

Minford coach Shane Tieman was one of the few who was aware of the reunion. “Normally, Sadie would be starting the game but I felt she might be a bit distracted about seeing her brother. I wanted to give her some time before she went in.”

After the emotional prelude, the game was anything but an afterthought. The Spartans brought the attack early with a strong challenge by Trinity Daniels a few minutes after the first touch that forced goalie Naveah Porter into a tough save. Nine minutes in, Alexander put the first 2021 tally in the book with a nice combo from seniors Marlee Grinstead and Amora Albano. Taking Grinstead’s lead pass, Albano danced through the defense and pocketed a tidy strike into the webbing.

Working the ball through the Alexander midfield, the Falcons equalized the score when freshman Ava Cronin capitalized on weak defensive clearances, smacking the ball off netminder Emma Pennington’s reach. “Spartan mentor Tom Fauber analyzed the score as a communication problem. “We simply did not communicate along the back line and it resulted in a goal on their only attempt. We didn’t clear well and left the girl unmarked.”

The Spartans responded by charging into the Minford defensive third with Albano at the point. Porter stopped two shots but the senior striker found a way to make the third try a payoff. Weaving from deep right, she sent a cross to the box where Grinstead popped a lay-out header into the strings. 2-1 Alexander.

Five minutes later, the score was leveled again. Freshman sub Lyla Napier collected a clearance thirty yards from the goal. She blasted the ball in what appeared to be just a deep kick. But, it flew into the thin space between the crossbar and Pennington’s hand. “At that point, we held them to only two shots on goal and they got two scores. That second one was really tough for any goalie at any level of competition.”

Pennington earned her stripes shortly thereafter. Cronin got free and Pennington nudged the high attempt and tipped it away. The rebound shot was more of a challenge but the senior keeper twisted quickly in the opposite direction to knock the ball clear.

As the first half wound down, Grinstead and Albano each had chances at Porter but could not find the back of the net. But with two minutes left on the clock, Grinstead intercepted a Falcon pass and found her running mate immediately. And the dance was on. Shredding three defenders into the box, Albano tucked the ball into the strings and the Spartans had earned a 3-2 lead.

The Falcons had a chance to change things with twenty seconds left following a foul just outside the host’s penalty area. Pennington corralled Cronin’s attempt as the half ended.

Fauber comented that “when we gave up that second goal, the team didn’t get down. I think they got angry. They recognized the mistakes that led to the goals.”

As the second half opened, the run of play was controlled by Alexander. The midfield and defense, led by Ava Hoffer and Jenelle Fauber, thwarted Minford’s offense and the attacking third belonged to the home side. Grinstead and Aquaria Albano each had opportunities at Porter’s cage, Grinstead with a lovely header off a corner kick that went just wide of the post.

The Falcons had one chance at an attack midway through the half following a defensive miscue. But it broke down when Lexi Conkel pushed her shot well over the crossbar.

A few minutes later, Spartan freshman Brooks beat two defenders on the right flank, dribbled clear, and launched a pretty pass to the middle. It landed at Amora Albano’s stride foot and the senior tapped it through for her hat trick third marker of the afternoon. The 4-2 lead seemed to deflate the young Falcons as the attack was essentially all Alexander for the remainder of the match.

With five minutes left, the constant pressure resulted in the fifth goal of the day for the Spartans. Fauber ripped a free kick the dipped but clanged off the crossbar. Daniels outjumped her teammates and headed the ball over Porter for her first varsity goal. With the scoreboard reading 5-2, the Spartans opened the season with a victory.

“Even considering how the first half scoring went, I thought we controlled the game. Our defense tightened up in the second half and our passing was solid, more confident. Jenelle (Fauber) was essential in the back and Ava Hoffer had a really strong showing in the midfield in the second half. Emma Pennington had those two big saves that kept the game even late in the first half.

“Our offense generated a lot of attempts at goal that just missed or hit the goalie so the score could have been a lot different. Marlee (Grinstead) and Amora (Albano) worked well together, and they had no answer for Amora.”

The Spartans will take the bus to Gallia Academy on Tuesday to take on Gallia Academy. The boys’ team will open their season with the Blue Devils following the final whistle of that match.

SCORING:

Alex 3 2 5

Minford 2 0 2

Alex Am Albano (Grinstead) 1st 31:30 1-0

Minford Cronin 1st 24:37 1-1

Alex Grinstead (Am Albano) 1st 15:33 2-1

Minford Napier 1st 10:30 2-2

Alex Am Albano 1st 02:09 3-2

Alex Am Albano (Brooks) 2nd 15:54 4-2

Alex Daniels 2nd 05:21 5-2


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