Season openers, whatever the sport, always produce surprises; some good, some bad.
Saturday’s opener between host Alexander Spartans and the mighty Minford Falcons produced one of the heartwarming varieties for the Falcons’ sophomore year, Sadie Hatfield.
Sargent Shayne Gay of the Ohio National Guard not only provided an inflatable tunnel for the teams’ first game, but was part of a much larger production.
After the team’s introductions, Sgt Gay led the Spartans through the tunnel to the field. Then the Falcons came out led by a very special guest.
Barely returning from a twelve-hour deployment, Hatfield’s brother Tanner Hall led the Falcons through the tunnel to cheers from the assembled crowd after the announcement. It was a total and tearful surprise to the sophomore and his mother who had no idea Hall would be at the game.
Minford coach Shane Tieman was one of the few who knew about the reunion. “Normally Sadie would start the game, but I felt she might be a little distracted seeing her brother. I wanted to give her some time before she came in.
After the emotional prelude, the game was anything but an afterthought. The Spartans carried the offense early thanks to a solid challenge from Trinity Daniels minutes after the first touch that forced goalkeeper Naveah Porter to make a tough save. Nine minutes later, Alexander scored the first count of 2021 in the book with a nice combo of seniors Marlee Grinstead and Amora Albano. Taking the header from Grinstead, Albano danced through the defense and pocketed a neat shot in the strap.
Working the ball into Alexander’s midfield, the Falcons evened the score when rookie Ava Cronin took advantage of weak defensive clearances, knocking the ball out of the reach of goalie Emma Pennington. “Spartan mentor Tom Fauber analyzed the score as a communication problem. “We just didn’t communicate along the back line and it resulted in a goal on their only attempt. We didn’t clear well and left the girl unmarked.
The Spartans responded by charging into Minford’s third defense with Albano on point. Porter stopped two shots, but the senior forward found a way to make the third try pay. Weaving from the bottom of the right, she sent a cross to the area where Grinstead put a layout header into the ropes. 2-1 Alexander.
Five minutes later, the score was again equalized. First-year sub-student Lyla Napier got a clearance thirty yards from goal. She detonated the ball in what appeared to be just a deep kick. But, he flew into the thin space between the crossbar and Pennington’s hand. “At that point we limited them to just two shots on goal and they scored two goals. This second was really tough for any goalie at any level of competition.
Pennington earned his stripes shortly thereafter. Cronin broke free and Pennington pushed the attempt high and knocked him down. The rebound shot was more of a challenge, but the senior keeper quickly twisted in the opposite direction to clear the ball.
At the end of the first half, Grinstead and Albano each had chances at Porter but couldn’t find the back of the net. But with two minutes remaining, Grinstead intercepted a Falcon pass and immediately found his running mate. And the dance was on. Shredding three defenders into the box, Albano tucked the ball into the ropes and the Spartans took a 3-2 lead.
The Falcons had the opportunity to turn things around with twenty seconds left following a foul just outside the host’s penalty area. Pennington circled Cronin’s attempt at the end of half-time.
Fauber commented that “when we gave up that second goal, the team didn’t give up. I think they got mad. They recognized the mistakes that led to the goals.
At the start of the second half, the flow of play was controlled by Alexander. The midfielder and defense, led by Ava Hoffer and Jenelle Fauber, thwarted Minford’s offense and the third striker belonged to the home side. Grinstead and Aquaria Albano each had opportunities in Porter’s cage, Grinstead with a nice header from a corner that went just off the post.
The Falcons had a chance to attack mid-halfway through a defensive error. But he broke down when Lexi Conkel pushed her shot well over the crossbar.
Minutes later, Spartan rookie Brooks beat two defenders on the right flank, dribbled clearly and threw a nice pass down the middle. He landed just behind Amora Albano and the senior hit him for her third scorer hat trick of the afternoon. The 4-2 lead seemed to deflate the young Falcons as the attack was mostly Alexander’s for the remainder of the game.
With five minutes remaining, the constant pressure resulted in the Spartans’ fifth goal of the day. Fauber snatched a free kick the dive but echoed on the crossbar. Daniels passed his teammates and directed the ball to Porter for his first college goal. With a score of 5-2, the Spartans opened the season with a victory.
“Even considering how the score went in the first half, I thought we were in control. Our defense tightened in the second half and our passes were solid, more confident. Jenelle (Fauber) was essential at the back and Ava Hoffer put in a very good performance in midfield in the second half. Emma Pennington made those two big saves that kept the game going even late in the first half.
“Our attack generated a lot of goal attempts that missed or hit the goalkeeper, so the score could have been very different. Marlee (Grinstead) and Amora (Albano) worked well together, and they had no response for Amora. “
The Spartans will take the bus to Gallia Academy on Tuesday to face Gallia Academy. The boys’ team will open their season with the Blue Devils after the final whistle of this game.
Alex Am Albano (Grinstead) 1st 31:30 1-0
Minford Cronin 1st 24:37 1-1
Alex Grinstead (Am Albano) 1st 15:33 2-1
Minford Napier 1st 10:30 2-2
Alex Am Albano 1st 02:09 3-2
Alex Am Albano (Brooks) 2nd 15:54 4-2
Alex Daniels 2nd 05:21 5-2