FULTON — Longtime Unatego girls soccer coach Sue Herodes didn’t hesitate Saturday when asked if this current group of Spartans was the best she’s coach.
“This one is on top,” Herodes said.
Equally undeniable Saturday afternoon at Fulton High was that Section Four champion Unatego was the second-best team on the field for a Class C state quarterfinal.
Serena Kiss and Elisa Marchione scored second-half goals to lead Section Three’s Sauquoit Valley to a 2-0 victory — a final score that accurately depicted what transpired over 80 minutes on the artificial surface.
The Spartans (18-1-1) generated chances — the three best arguably starting on corner kicks by Cassidy Newman in the second half — but the Indians authored the best scoring opportunities on a cloudy but pleasant autumn day.
SV (18-2) had more speed and size — not major advantages but definitely noticeable.
“We’re a fast team,” said SV’s Jenna Mazza, whose crafty individual effort along the right end line midway through the second half helped produce the first goal. “This is probably one of the fastest teams we’ve had in a while and I think it helped us out a lot.”
Mazza assisted freshman Kiss’ goal with 22 minutes, 10 seconds left. The assist, in this instance, was much better than the goal itself.
A speedy sophomore, Mazza controlled the ball down the right side and took it to the end line. Unatego had a defender in position, but Mazza faked going back out before reversing field and turning the corner toward the goal.
“You don’t want to give up that end line,” Herodes said. “You can keep them on the flank, but as soon as they turn that corner and go parallel with the end line, you’re in trouble because as soon as you do that, the defense is going to shift. When that happens, that opens up the weak side.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Mazza took two more touches toward the goal before sending a line-drive cross to the left side of the box. Kiss barely had to move, heading the ball from 8 yards inside the near post to give the Indians the lead. It marked the freshman’s third goal of the season.
“It was obviously huge scoring the first goal,” Mazza said. “Our coach always tells us to go down the sideline and cut in like that. I hesitated and got around her and I knew that’s all I had to do. Having Serena Kiss there to head the ball in, that was just amazing.”
About two minutes before Kiss’ goal, Unatego had its first good scoring chance. Newman set up for a corner from the left side and sent a high kick to the far post about 10 yards out. Senior Sarah Mannina — the area’s leading scorer — positioned herself on the far post and, despite being 5-foot-4, leaped to get her head on it. It was on frame but about a yard over the crossbar.
Newman and Mannina nearly hooked up again on a corner with about 15 minutes left. This time, Newman sent it closer to the goal but again went far post. The service went over SV goalie Alyson Gaffney as Mannina crashed hard to the left post. Mannina was about a half-second late.
“That one really ticked me off because I was super-close to that one,” said Mannina, a fifth-year varsity player who had 24 goals and 12 assists this season. “It was just a foot away.”
Added Herodes: “That was unfortunate. Cassidy can’t put a ball better in there for us to finish. She put a ball over the top of the keeper and right into the space and we just weren’t at the end of it to finish. It happens, I guess.”
Any chance of the Spartans advancing to the state semifinals for the first time in school history ended when Marchione scored on a 21-yard direct kick from the middle of the field with 7:06 to play. The Indians’ leading scorer sent a low kick that sneaked inside the left post, just out of the reach of a diving Robin Foster.
It was Marchione’s 29th goal of the season.
“I think they got a little tired in the back,” said SV coach Tom Clive, whose team advanced to the state semifinals for the third time in four years. “They’re not used to the kind of speed we have. Our girls, because they’re so young, they have no fear.
“(Unatego is) skilled and well-coached,” he continued. “They played a good game.”
The Spartans’ last scoring chance came with two minutes left. Again, a Newman corner kick started things as she sent a high ball to the middle of the box.
Green came out and tried to bat it away, but the ball squirted out to Casey Manzanero on the left side of the box. Manzanero — Unatego’s other fifth-year varsity player — had a clean look but popped it way over the crossbar.
SV’s speed was apparent on the defensive end as well. The Spartans had a lot of success getting balls out to the sides before playing them to the middle for Mannina in their 1-0 Section Four championship victory over Elmira Notre Dame. But they had trouble working their offense against SV.
“We struggled getting the ball out to the flanks and getting services like we usually do,” said Herodes, whose team outscored its opponents, 86-5, this season. “That’s attributed to their speed, no doubt. We don’t like to play down through the middle. We have the people on the outside, but they had the advantage in speed down the flanks.”
Unatego’s season included a Midstate Athletic Conference title and the program’s second foray into the state playoffs — the first coming in 1996.
“It’s an all-around team,” Herodes said. “Every single person contributed to this season, offensively and defensively. Yeah, Sarah had a lot of goals, but the rest of the team did, too. They’re wonderful kids. They have good hearts and they have good souls. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
Added Mannina: “Out of all my seasons, this is the furthest we’ve advanced. Everyone on the team got along great and we all connected. We won a sectional championship, so we’re happy with that.”
SV 2, Unatego 0
CLASS C STATE QUARTERFINAL
Saturday at Fulton High
Number before team indicates section
Unatego 0 0 _ 0
Sauquoit 0 2 _ 2
4-Unatego (18-1-1): None.
3-Sauquoit Valley (18-2): Serena Kiss 1-0, Jenna Mazza 0-1, Elisa Marchione 1-0.
Shots-corner kicks: U 6-3; S 9-1.
Goalies: Robin Foster (U) 6; Alyson Gaffney (S) 4.
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.