Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With both teams coming off a loss on Saturday, the Rocky River and Westlake boys soccer teams had plenty to play for as the two teams renewed their old Southwestern Conference rivalry Monday night.
With both teams coming into the game tied for first place in their respective conferences, some big-time bragging rights were on the line.
And with 55-plus minutes of scoreless soccer in the books, something had to give.
With the Pirates playing tough defensively, Westlake tried a more direct approach offensively, and it paid off. In the 56th minute, a Nick Wertman header off a long free kick near midfield got the Demons on the board. They added an insurance goal late in the half and left Rocky River Stadium with a 2-0 win.
“Tonight was a combination of things,” said Demons head coach Mike Besu, whose team raised it’s record to 6-1 overall.
“They showed up to play, and we didn’t,” Besu said. “They out-hustled us and wanted to play. We showed up, especially in the first half, playing in slow motion. It was one of those games. Hopefully we learn from this and move on.”
Rocky River, which came into the game with a 4-1-1 mark, managed to clog things up in the box defensively whenever the Demons made a run. The Demons’ best scoring chance of the first half came in the 37th minute when Mark Sutcliffe had the ball, broke away from his defender and ripped a shot from inside 20 yards out.
River keeper Dominic Liva, however, was equal to the task and stopped the attempt just inside the left post. The Pirates had a handful of shots, but most of them were from over 20 yards out.
In the second half, the Pirates had a golden opportunity. In the 51st minute, Westlake was called for a handball, giving River a free kick from 20 yards out. Sutton Klodnick struck the ball solidly, but it went wide left.
Westlake seemed to pick up the pace offensively after that. Adam Thompson got in close for a header that was snared by Liva, then another close-range shot by the Demons was stopped by Liva. The ball bounced back into play to Liva’s right, but his teammates were able to deflect the rebound attempt away.
After some close encounters failed to net a goal, the Demons went long on their next attempt.
A foul near midfield gave the Demons a free kick in the 56th minute. Senior defender Sean Bigley set the ball and launched a rocket toward the River goal crease. In stepped Wertman, who headed the ball into the back of the net for the first goal of the game with 24:17 remaining in regulation.
“We had to try something because River was playing so tough defensively,” Besu said of the play. “They were not going to open up. We tried on the ground, but there were just too many people.
“I tried to tell the guys at halftime that sometimes you have to play a little more direct and not let them set up. They were dropping back fast enough, so we couldn’t get through that way,” he added.
River head coach Kevin Zerbey said the long attempt shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
“The first thing is, we don’t foul out here,” said Zerbey as he motioned to the spot of Bigley’s kick. “I think what happened is we grabbed one of their guy’s shirts, so the foul was called. If you can prevent that foul, then they don’t get that kick.
“We went up and challenged, but he’s one of their captains for a reason,” Zerbey said of Wertman. “That guy scored a big goal for them. You want your captain to be able to answer the bell when they hear it.”
“Really, that was the game. Their other goal was just icing on the cake for them,” he added.
Westlake scored an insurance goal with 3:52 left in the game. That’s when Liva knocked away a Westlake shot attempt from his right, only to have junior forward Adam Thompson put in the rebound on the back side.
For the game, Liva was credited with seven saves, while Westlake’s keeper, Jamie Lackner, recorded four. The Demons outshot their hosts, 12-9.
“I thought we were going to get that first goal tonight,” Zerbey said.
“I felt the way we were moving the ball around and going at them there in the second half, I thought we were going to score,” he said. “We possessed the ball well enough and moved it around, we just weren’t able to capitalize.
Zerbey also said that although his team had gotten off to a good start this season, he felt they could still reach another plateau.
“We’ve been able to do some nice things and play some attractive soccer, but it seems like the guys have been going through the motions doing it,” he said. “I’m not a yeller and a screamer. That’s not my personality. But maybe sometimes these guys need that.
“Before the game, I let them know that I really wanted them to come out fired up, ready to play hard and play with some passion. For a good part of this game, I thought we played that way. If you have that passion, a game like this has to eat you up inside.
“I felt like we outplayed Westlake for most of the game. But we have nothing to show for it but a loss. I know that’s going to keep me up a while tonight,” he added.
River, which is tied with Bay for first place in the West Shore Conference, will return to league action Wednesday night when the Pirates host Avon. Westlake, atop the SWC, will tangle with Berea the same night.
“We were one step or two behind the whole game from where we usually play,” Besu said. “We seem to have a hard time adjusting to playing on the carpet, but we’ve played a couple times on this surface this year and we’ve played better than this.
“I told the kids after the game that I’m not going to get mad or upset. But we have two games this week. If we play like this, we’re going to have two losses. It’s as simple as that. We have to show up to practice tomorrow, and we’ve got to work.
“We’ve got to play a lot better than this if we’re going to beat Berea,” he concluded.