Story by Jim Horvath
Photo and video by Larry Bennet
With undefeated Brecksville coming to town for one of just two Southwestern Conference games left on the schedule, the task for the Westlake boys soccer team was laid out in simple black and white:
Win, and take the lead in the SWC standings. Lose, and depend on a lot of help from Amherst and Avon Lake.
The Demons, behind a pair of first-half goals from senior Nick Wertman, managed to take the winning route Tuesday night at Read Field. They handed the Bees their first loss of the season, 3-1, to take control of the conference race and move to 5-0-1 in the SWC.
Brecksville, now 11-1-1 overall, dropped to 4-1 in the conference with games remaining against the Comets and Shoremen. Westlake can win the SWC outright Saturday when it faces Midpark on the road at noon.
Getting to that point, though, wasn’t an easy task.
Brecksville came out aggressively on offense and maintained possession in the Westlake third throughout most of the first 10-12 minutes. The Bees cashed in on that aggressiveness as Andrew Rader found Paul Phillips for the first goal of the game just 8:04 into the contest.
“I had scouted them a few times and got some reports on them. We knew that they were going to come out strong,” said Demons head coach Mike Besu.
“They’re one of those teams who like to come out fast and put pressure on you,” Besu said. “They scored a goal, but fortunately we came right back. I thought after they scored, we came back and played probably our best soccer of the year.
“Easily, we could have put our heads down and felt sorry for ourselves, but we didn’t,” he added.
The Demons began to assert themselves offensively, and it didn’t take long for them to answer Phillips’ goal. After a throw in, Westlake maintained control as senior Dan McNeeley passed the ball to sophomore Brian Sutcliffe on the left wing. Sutcliffe fired a solid crossing pass to the far side of the goal, where Wertman had positioned himself.
The pass was dead on, allowing Wertman to beat Brecksville keeper Connor Stease with the game-tying goal with 23:30 left in the first half.
Wertman struck again in the 28th minute. Junior Clay Wichman advanced the ball up the middle to Chris Korek, who quickly got Stease’s attention. Stease stepped up to cut down the angle, and Korek responded with a pass that found Wertman alone for the go-ahead score with 12:39 left in the half.
“To respond like that, first of all, just kills the other team’s confidence because were were able to hit right back,” Wertman said after the game. “And then to go ahead was just crucial for us.
“We’ve been talking about this game for weeks. It means everything to us. To be able to be in a position to win the conference now is great,” he added.
After Wertman’s second goal, the game’s intensity level increased on both sides.
Wertman nearly got a third score late in the half when he took a long pass up the middle and found himself one-on-one with Stease in the 34th minute. The two collided at the ball, with Stease recovering to pounce on the ball and clear it before another Westlake player could move in for an easy goal.
The Demons, however, eventually got that insurance goal early in the second half. That’s when Sutcliffe threw the ball in up the near sideline to sophomore Omar Salem, who immediately took it up field.
Salem advanced the ball, blew past a Brecksville defender and turned right toward the goal. He hit a lazer shot on the run that evaded Stease and hit the far right inside of the net to give the Demons a 3-1 advantage with 34:45 remaining.
The rest of the way, the Westlake defense had it’s collective hands full with the potent Brecksville offense. The Bees swarmed the Westlake third again, but the home team’s defense and keeper Jamie Lackner were up to the task.
“Our defense has been everything for us this season,” Wertman said. “When our offense can’t produce, our defense has been there and covered for us. They saved the game for us. They proved themselves time after time, and I’m proud of them.
“And for Omar to not only score his first goal of the season, but to score it at a time like that... It was an individual goal, but that’s what we expect out of him because we know what he’s capable of,” he added.
Besu, who had been concerned with his team’s play the past few weeks, admitted a few recent changes made a big difference.
“I though we played good soccer the first six games,” Besu said. “Then the last couple of weeks, we’ve been floundering a bit. I think we had some tired legs, so we’ve been trying to give them some time off. At the same time, we play such a tough schedule it can be tough to do that.
“Nick is one of our leaders and a goal scorer for us,” he said. “But the last couple of games, we changed some positions. Nick was our center mid, but we moved him up top. He’s been a workhorse up there, so that move paid off for us.
“And Omar’s goal was unbelievable. I’ve been joking with him the past couple of weeks in practice because he had not scored a goal this season. I told him maybe I should switch him back to a defender or a goalie. I mean, it’s been 11 games.
“He kept saying ‘I’m going to score, I’m going to score,’ and today he did. That was an excellent goal,” he said with a smile.
Besu also knew his defense would get tested, especially once the Demons got the two-goal lead.
“Obviously we knew they weren’t going to give up because it was such a big game,” he said. “ They had a chance to win the conference, just like us. We knew the 3-1 lead wasn’t enough with 34 minutes left. There was a lot of time left, but we held them off.
“Now we have one game left in the conference and they have two. We’re in first place now, and if we take care of our own business against Midpark, we’ll win it,” he added.