STILLWATER, N.Y. — Beginner’s luck for the newly-merged Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District ended a lengthy championship drought for the two districts from which it was formed.
The Wolves, playing their first season as a single district, claimed Section II’s Class D championship Wednesday with a 3-1 victory over Fort Ann at Stillwater High School. The championship comes 10 years after St. Johnsville last won a sectional soccer title; Oppenheim-Ephratah never won one in Section III.
“‘One team, one dream,’” Wolves coach Zale Benton repeated Wednesday. “I’ve been saying that all season. The kids have been great all the way through the season. It’s real nice to pull this together for both communities (and) it’s important to know how hard these kids have worked.”
The top-seeded Wolves established control early Wednesday. Fort Ann had a corner kick three minutes into the match but the flow of play immediately shifted to the far end of the field. Tabea Salzmann fired one shot over the crossbar and had a second broken up with a slide tackle inside the box two minutes later.
Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville (15-3-1) took the initial lead in the 13th minute on Rylie Smith’s free kick from 25 yards out. Smith lined up her shot from above the right corner of the penalty area and sent a cross into the far corner of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Fort Ann tied the score a short time later with a Kaleigh Foran shot that hit Salzmann and deflected inside the near post.
The Wolves were able to regain the lead before halftime. Salzmann took the ball from a defender and played it forward into the box for Jessi Hagadorn, one of the team’s two seniors, and Hagadorn slipped a shot along the turf past Cardinals goalkeeper Caitlyn Sweenor.
“That was really big,” Smith said of the goal that put the Wolves ahead for good. “Tabea was really upset (about the Fort Ann goal) and we hung our heads a bit. After we scored again, that picked us back up.”
Salzmann added an assist on Smith’s second goal in the second half. Working across the field from the left corner, the exchange student spotted a wide open Smith stationed just above the top of the box and dropped a pass that Smith blasted into the net to give her team a two-goal lead.
“I was off my game (against Bolton in the semifinals) and I wasn’t playing good at all,” Smith said. “Today, I got back on top of it. I was able to score and I was glad to do it and help my team win.”
Smith and Salzmann, who left the Bolton match for part of the second half with an injury, controlled the midfield against Fort Ann.
Page 2 of 2 - “They gave us the middle,” Benton said of the Cardinals. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to but Rylie and Tabea played off each other real well.”
Behind them, Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville’s defense smothered Fort Ann’s attempts to attack goalkeeper Leann Clark.
“The defense has been playing real well,” Benton said. “I said early in the year that once we solidify the defense the rest will fall into place. ... When the defense steps up and plays well, the offense just rolls.”
The Wolves, beneficiaries of four years playing together as a combined program before the districts merged, outshot the Cardinals (11-3-0) 18-8 Wednesday. Clark made seven saves while Sweenor had 10 for Fort Ann.
The scoring chances went beyond the save totals for the Wolves. Smith hit the crossbar on a free kick in the second half and Hagadorn chipped another ball off the crossbar a short time later.
“Even when we didn’t convert we were dangerous,” Benton said. “They knew that we were knocking at the door.”
Benton, who coached St. Johnsville to a state championship in 200o and a sectional title in 2003, takes the Wolves back to Middletown High School Saturday where the 2003 Saints were beaten 1-0 by Florida’s S.S. Seward High School, the Section IX champion. Eldred is the Section IX representative this year, having beaten Livingston Manor 3-2 Oct. 29.