MORGANTOWN — On a gorgeous autumn evening, the Trinity Christian soccer team celebrated Homecoming in front of a packed house with their final regular-season match against a strong Class AA Grafton squad.
As it turned out, about half the crowd went home happy – all the way to Taylor County, as the Bearcats executed a solid game plan and capitalized on a first-half scoring chance to earn a well-deserved win in a tough match against the short-handed Warriors, 1-0.
Grafton (12-6-1) enjoyed a decided possession advantage throughout the closely contested first half, while Trinity (11-6-2) continuously looked for quick counterattack opportunities. However, neither team was able to generate quality chances in their offensive final third.
The Bearcats hit a promising shot toward TCS keeper Ben Lohmann in the 21st minute, but midfielder Ethan Weaver’s rifled right-footed blast from the top of the box sailed over the bar. The Warriors’ slippery junior Brock Shuba shook loose on the right side, but his sharp-angle shot slid across the goalmouth and wide.
Finally, a missed opportunity for a clear from the TC defense in the 28th minute led to the only goal of the match. Sophomore midfielder Brayden Bailey gathered a loose ball on the left wing and quickly served a centering pass onto the foot of onrushing forward Jude Minard. Despite close marking, the senior flicked a one-touch shot from 15 yards out that sailed into the top corner for a quality finish and a 1-0 GHS lead.
Trinity nearly knotted the score in the final minute after a lovely build-up from central defense. A series of well-connected passes finally sprung senior forward Charles Steptoe into a narrow sliver of space along the left end of the box.
Defenders, Grafton keeper Tyler Clemm, and Steptoe converged at the corner of the penalty area, and the ball deflected out of the scrum and rolled agonizingly slowly across the goalmouth and barely wide of the abandoned net front.
As the sun set and the temperature fell, Trinity, trailing by one, hoped to heat up its sluggish offense by moving dynamic sophomore midfielder Parker Hopkins into a more attacking posture, and also ramping up their activity on 50-50 balls. And after a near disaster in the 44th minute on a long direct kick that somehow bounced into the box onto the foot of Minard, who was stoned from point-blank range by Lohmann, the Warriors seized the better of the play for a solid stretch of the second half.
Hopkins played an excellent through ball to Steptoe, whose left-foot shot slid past Clemm but curved just wide. Then in the 56th minute, a third consecutive free-kicked earned by a strong midfield effort nearly yielded the equalizer when the GHS keeper fumbled the long service into the box, but he managed to recover and smother the loose change.
The Bearcats quickly reestablished their dominance through the midfield behind talented captain Landen Hulley, generating a series of Grade-A scoring chances – each of which was turned away by athletic and fundamentally textbook goalkeeping from Lohmann, who finished with 11 saves, six of which were of the Grade-AA variety.
The Warriors mustered one final flurry in the 76th minute when a free kick just outside the box was deflected wide for a corner. That set piece was floated dangerously into the box and found its intended target, but Steptoe’s sharp header was partially deflected by Clemm, who also accumulated 11 saves, then sat tantalizingly close to the goal line, but was swept away by the Bearcat defense. It was TC’s best and last chance of the match.
Despite the loss, TC coach Dan Lohmann was more than pleased with the quality of play.
“We were missing some starters, and then we lost a few more to injury,” he explained, “so we asked several young players to contribute many more minutes at unfamiliar positions. We knew they’d be strong with possession, which put a lot of pressure on our back line and Ben to weather the storm and keep us in it. It’s what we’ve expected of them and him all year, and they were excellent tonight.”
Although the Warriors have now dropped three of their last four games, the strength of their opponents — University, Lewis County, East Fairmont and Grafton — was by design, all with a focus on the upcoming sectionals.
“We wanted to ramp up the difficulty of our matches down the stretch as a way to prepare for the playoffs,” Dan Lohmann said. “Based on our performances, and if we can heal up, I think we’re ready for sectionals, and we’re certainly glad to be hosting our first match. It’s what we’ve played all year for, and now it’s time to move forward with confidence in our game.”
The No. 1 seeded Warriors begin the sectional tournament at home next Thursday at 6 p.m. against the winner of the Magnolia and Tyler Consolidated play-in match.
BY MARK SCHRAF