JAMIE BAKER / The Courier
LIBERTY-BENTON’S SAVANAH RICHARDS (10) and Maya Rickle (14) close in on Van Buren’s Jewela Hutchison who grabs the ball for a save during Wednesday’s winner-take-all girls North Central Ohio Soccer Association match.


Staff Writer

Rivalry match.

Regular-season finale.

League title on the line.

And Liberty-Benton’s senior night.

Wednesday night presented the players with plenty to think about. So when state-ranked and unbeaten Liberty-Benton was scoreless nearly 60 minutes into the match, panic began to surface.

But a calming halftime talk after senior-night festivities and a first-half formation adjustment was enough as the Eagles rallied with two goals in a three-minute span to defeat Van Buren 2-0 and wrap up an undefeated regular season.

“Panic and a lot of emotions,” L-B senior captain Savanah Richards said.

“But I think we all had a lot of trust in each other. I think we knew we had it, we just had to put the pieces together.”

The Eagles improved to 14-0-1 overall and swept the North Central Ohio Soccer Association 5-0 to reclaim the conference crown — their fifth league title in six seasons. Van Buren fell to 9-5-2, 4-1 in the NCOSA.

L-B’s first finish came midway through the second half after Pagano chose to shift a third player to forward during the first half. After the Black Knights cleared the ball out toward midfield down the right sideline, the Eagles’ Mia Siferd sent it directly back the other way.

The looping kick landed into the Van Buren box, took a high bounce and VB keeper Jewelya Hutchison charged. She leapt for the ball, but sophomore Alexis Rickenbacher — the tallest player on the field — met Hutchison at the ball, jumped and headed the ball away from her gloves. Richards, the Eagles’ leading scorer, was there for the follow-up tapping the ball into an uncontested net.

“Alexis, she’s tall so she normally gets to those balls and she knew I was coming, she said she saw me coming back, so I knew I was going to have to be there,” said Richards, who scored her 24th goal of the season.

Hutchison tallied 24 saves, including at least seven diving stops and one late-game dive that resulted in a direct catch into the abdomen, while the Eagles were unable to follow up the deflections for goals. Whether a player wasn’t there, or the shot was errant, L-B’s offense struggled to finish early.

But freshman Olivia Bodie put L-B ahead 2-0, less than three minutes after Richards’ goal, on a cross from Maya Rickle.

“The emotions were there. There was a lot of frustration there, and obviously I was frustrated as well. But I had to put all that to the side and just calm them down,” L-B coach Mark Pagano said.

“I told them ‘You girls are playing well. There’s just 18 yards in front of the box that we haven’t been playing well and you need to start finishing.'”

The panic was gone.

The Knights fired four shots on frame and had a couple other potential opportunities that were ultimately stymied by a nearly impenetrable back line. Their best chance came about five minutes before Richards’ score.

Instead, L-B held Van Buren scoreless for its ninth shutout of the season and its fifth in the past six games.

Sophomore keeper Sophie Aschemier saved all four shots and added to her single-season school record 15 shutouts as a freshman last season, giving her a new school-record 24 career shutouts.

Liberty-Benton and Van Buren both open the OHSAA tournament with first-round byes into the district quarterfinal.

L-B will play the winner of Ada-Allen East and the Knights will play the Riverdale-Galion winner.

Both district quarterfinals will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday Oct. 20.

GOALS: (L-B) Savanah Richards & Olivia Bodie 1. ASSISTS: (L-B) Alexis Rickenbacher & Maya Rickle 1. SHOTS-ON-GOAL: Van Buren 4, Liberty-Benton 26. SAVES: (VB) Jewelya Hutchison 24; (L-B) Sophie Aschemeier 4.

RECORDS: Van Buren 9-5-2, 4-1 North Central Ohio Soccer Association; Liberty-Benton 14-0-1, 5-0 NCOSA.