Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and vide by Larry Bennet
After his team's narrow 3-2 win over Celina in the Division II regional title game, Rocky River head coach Patrick Hopkins knew his team could play better.
Seemed like his Pirates knew it too.
A determined Rocky River squad went into Tuesday's OHSAA Division II state semifinal game against Hathaway Brown with a renewed sense of purpose. The Pirates, down early 1-0, put on an offensive show for the ages in a convincing 6-2 win over the Blazers at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School.
The Pirates' journey into uncharted waters now continues Friday afternoon at Columbus Crew Stadium, the site of the OHSAA Division II championship game. There, they'll face Granville, a 1-0 winner of Kettering Alter in the other state semifinal matchup.
"We had a long discussion after our last game with Celina," Hopkins said after Tuesday's win. "The girls were not happy with our preparation. They thought we were taking things a bit lackadaisical, and not going at it the way we needed to go at it.
"We won the regional finals, but we left Ashland with a bad taste in our mouths because we felt we weren't prepared. Our last couple of practices have been solid, some of the best practices we've had all season. These girls came in here focused and ready.
"Usually on the day of a game, I'm anxious. When I woke up this morning, I was excited, and I wanted the game to start right away. I knew these girls were ready and in a good spot," he said.
Hathaway Brown, which came into the game with a 15-3-3 record, drew first blood with 9:02 off the scoreboard clock. Melissa Vajskop stole the ball in the Rocky River third, and made a move past the Pirate defense on the right side. Her crossing shot evaded goalie Sara Connelly,and the Blazers were up 1-0.
But as play in the first half continued, it was obvious that Rocky River would bounce back. The Pirates put the pedal to the metal and came up with four corner kicks in the next 10 minutes as play gravitated to the Hathaway Brown side of the field.
Then with 19:20 left in the first half, a palyed ball bounced right out to Abby Elinsky. The senior forward ripped a shot from about 20 yards out that evaded Blazer keeper Clair O'Brien and tied the game at 1-1.
The Pirates kept the pressure on, working their way into two more corner opportunities. Neither resulted in a goal, but an upcoming throw-in did.
Senior McKenna Klodnick, known throughout her career for her long throw-in attempts, took the ball from about 20 yards out on the River sideline. The ball made its way right to the upper part of the HB goal and was touched by a leaping O'Brien.
The ball fell into the back of the net, resulting in a Pirate goal and a 2-1 lead with 13:52 left in the half.
"We gave them an opportunity, and they took advantage of it," said Hopkins of the Blazers' early 1-0 advantage. "We knew that if we were patient, we we were going to have our time.
"We put a lot of pressure on them, and it was just a matter of time before we put one away. We got one then another, and things opened up. They had to change what they were doing, and that fed into our style of play. That allowed us to open the game up," he said.
The River attack continued until halftime as the Pirates earned two more corner opportunities, giving them nine for the half. The score remained 2-1, but an offensive explosion proved to be just minutes away.
Elinsky nearly got her second goal in the 42nd minute, but her header attempt was stopped by O'Brien. The relentless offensive pressure, however, continued as senior forward Grace Bennett got into the act. Her laser shot off the dribble on the right side gave the Pirates a 3-1 lead with 35:12 left to play.
That goal opened the flood gates for the River offense.
At the 32:46 mark, junior Sydney Hamker cut lose a high, arching shot from long range that zipped over the hands of a leaping O'Brien for a 4-1 River lead. Later in the half, junior Jillian Krebs dribbled the ball down the right side and into the box. She crossed it over to Bennett, who placed the ball just inside the right post for a 5-1 River advantage.
With 10:44 remaining, Krebs got another assist, this one on Elinsky's second goal of the game that all but sealed Rocky River's date with destiny.
Hathaway Brown, forced to play defense most of the half, had a shot attempt turned away by Connelly in the 61st minute. Vajskop scored again in the 79th minute, but it was way too little, and way too late for Hathaway Brown.
"Abby's first goal really got us going," Hopkins said. It was a great finish, and it was huge for us.
"And then McKenna's throw-in was nice. We had a lot of opportunities with her throws. That was a big goal too. And if you noticed in the second half, our girls were having fun. They were playing the ball extremely well, knocking it around and setting things up.
"It was a lot of fun to watch. This team amazes me. There's no pressure, they just go out, play and have fun," he added.
Hopkins went on to say how special his team's tournament run has been.
"I'm not only excited for the girls in this program, but everyone else involved,' Hopkins said.
"If you look at this field tonight and how loud our fans were, everybody knew the Rocky River community was here. The maintenance people in our building, the guys who clean our locker room, were here. So many people are jumping on board because this is such a special group that's a lot of fun to be around.
"The community, the administration and the staff are all supportive of these girls. It's a lot of fun. Rocky River is a great place, and it's a great place to be a part of," he added.
The Pirates' game with Granville is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Friday.
(Follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic.com.)