Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Fresh off a huge win over defending state champion Perrysburg, the Rocky River girls soccer team returned to West Shore Conference play against Elyria Catholic.
The Pirates, looking to avoid a letdown, got a pair of first-half goals from McKenna Klodnick, then put the game away in the second half on Grace Bennett's hat trick to tame the Panthers, 5-0, Wednesday night at Rocky River Stadium.
With the win, Rocky River remained unbeaten at 11-0-1 and did nothing to tarnish their national ranking in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll. The Pirates went into the game ranked sixth overall and first in Region V, while also being ranked second in the Division II state coaches poll.
"Perrysburg was a big game for us, but right now we need to make sure we focus on one game at a time," said Pirates head coach Patrick Hopkins, whose team outshot the visiting Panthers 12-1.
"We played really well in that game, and we talked about not having a letdown," he said. "We want to keep playing our style of soccer no matter who the opponent is. Tonight, there was some frustration early on because things weren't coming as easily for us offensively. It seemed like every time we got the ball and turned up field, there was a wall of Elyria Catholic players.
"But we made some adjustments. When they put so many people on our forwards, it was great to see some of our other players step up. We had Mckenna step up with her two goals, and we had Sydney Hamker hitting some beautiful shots.
"Other girls were forced to step up tonight, and that caused their defense to step out a little bit. That created some opportunities, and that's when Grace was able to capitalize," he said.
Klodnick, a senior captain along with Bennett, scored the only goal the Pirates would need on the night early in the fifth minute. She took a pass from fellow senior Abby Elinsky and ripped a shot from about 20 yards out that evaded Panther goalkeeper Stevie Holbrook and gave River a 1-0 lead with 35:57 left in the half.
The Pirates had plenty of other scoring opportunities int he half, having six corner kicks and a pair of breakaway attempts. Holbrook was staunch in goal for EC, but allowed another Klodnick goal just past the midway point of the half. This one came in the box when a deflected River shot was directed by Hamker toward Klodnick, who punched it in on the left side of the goal for a 2-0 lead.
"I talked to McKenna the other day and told her how proud I was of what she's been doing recently in the middle of the field," Hopkins said. "It was nice to see her take advantage of the situation and score those first two goals for us."
"It was different because I'm usually coach puts me more on defense," said Klodnick, who recently set the program's career assist record. "Tonight I got a chance to play more up top, and it was fun. But I really enjoy getting the ball to my teammates, and it was great to be able to do that too."
Early in the second half, Bennett was able to shake free of a tight EC defense and scored her first goal of the game. She took a pass from senior midfielder Megan Kileen and nailed the shot from about 12 yards out to make it 3-0 River with 37:15 left in the game. Then with 21:03 left, Bennett and Klodnick teamed up for the team's fourth goal.
Klodnick steadily moved the ball up field, getting past a Panther defender and passing the ball forward toward the box. From there, Bennett took the ball, made a nice one-on-one move and zipped it past Holbrook to make it 4-0, Pirates.
Elyria Catholic, which had been quiet offensive for most of the game, made a late push into the River third, with Pirate goalie Sara Connelly making a big save in the 69th minute to keep the shutout intact. Minutes later, Bennett got her hat trick goal on a header off an Amanda Oster assist to ice the win.
"I know I want to give a lot of credit to all my seniors this season," Hopkins said. "They all understand that this is their senior year, and they all want to find success and take this team to the next level.
"You're talking about a team that has the experience of being a district champion, players who have been to the regional finals. To them, that's what they want. They want to get back to that. They know what it feels like to get there, and they want to get there again. You can tell by the way they practice. I mean, we played Perrysburg last Saturday in a huge game and we trained Sunday night. We went for an hour and a half, and it was purely recovery fitness.
"They're focused, and they realize what we're trying to do here. It's unbelievable what they're willing to sacrifice for this team. It starts with our senior leadership and goes on down to the younger play. It's contagious what's happening around here," he added.
Rocky River's next game will come on the home pitch Monday against St. Joseph Academy on Senior Recognition Night. The Pirates will then travel to Lakewood for another WSC contest, then sit back and await what happens in the Division II sectional/district seeding meeting on Sunday.
"The season is designed to have a lot of games early," Hopkins said. "We've tried to pick up a lot of big-name teams like St. Ursula, Clearfork and Perrysburg, as well as playing in the tournament in Indianapolis. That was a lot for us early in the season, and we had a lot of success.
"This is the time where I wanted to have our games more spread out. We'll have a couple more days off, play a few more games and hopefully go into our seed meeting with a strong record. Then after that, we still have games with Bay and Magnificat, and those are always two big games for us," he said.
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