As the state soccer tournament opens at Paul Cline Memorial Sports Complex in Beckley on Friday morning, the Kanawha Valley will have its chance to put an emphatic punctuation mark on what has already been a stellar postseason.
Eight semifinal games across boys and girls and two classes will be held Friday, using two fields at the complex to hold games simultaneously. It all starts with the Charleston Catholic boys taking on East Fairmont at 9:30 a.m., with the final game of the night scheduled for approximately 7 p.m. with defending boys champion Hurricane taking on Hedgesville.
Sandwiched in between those two contests are six more games, and each one will consist of a Kanawha Valley school with the boys and girls teams of Catholic, Hurricane, George Washington and Winfield all qualifying in their respective regions.
Success in soccer in the Kanawha Valley is hardly anything new, but to account for half of the state’s field over two counties is impressive to say the least.
“It’s a very special year for the Kanawha Valley,” GW girls coach Ali Sadeghian said. “It’s the first time I can recall in 20 years of coaching that the Kanawha Valley has represented 50 percent of the field. It’s a very prideful moment.”
“I think it’s good news for soccer, generally speaking,” echoed Catholic boys coach Niall Paul. “There’s a better style being played all around. It’s pretty impressive what the Valley has done this year and recently, and I think it speaks to the fact that we all try to play each other and it makes all of us better. Usually, Kanawha Valley teams are not running from tough matches and there’s a lot of internal competition.”
Whatever the reason, facing all eight Kanawha Valley teams on Friday will be opponents perfectly capable of winning a state championship as well. Here’s a brief look at each opening-round contest:
Class AAA boys
University (21-0-1) vs. George Washington (17-3-2), 5 p.m.: GW had to scrap from behind to get past Princeton in overtime in a Region 3 final, but the Patriots are back in Beckley, where they are certainly no strangers. The program will look to capture its fifth state championship, with the last coming just two years ago in 2016. The Patriots are led by a pair of senior strikers in Noah Carney (19 goals) and Chance Anderson (18 goals). University’s lone blemish came in a 2-2 tie to Bridgeport, and the Hawks have yielded just six goals over their last 15 contests.
Hurricane (19-2) vs. Hedgesville (10-5), 30 minutes after conclusion of first game: The Redskins enter as the lone Kanawha Valley team with a chance to repeat as champions and are streaking into the tournament having, won their last 11 games by a combined score of 54-3. Drake Lester (21 goals, nine assists), Ryan Fisher (21 goals, 17 assists) and Alik Assi (18 goals, 14 assists) give Hurricane plenty of punch up front. Despite losing its entire defensive unit a year ago, Hurricane has yielded just 12 goals this season behind first-year starting keeper Nick Eskins.
Class AA-A boys
East Fairmont (17-0-2) vs. Charleston Catholic (22-1), 9:30 a.m.: Speaking of stingy defenses, none have matched what Catholic has done, giving up only five goals in 23 games, with two of those coming by penalty kicks. Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Ethan Malinoski leads a stellar defensive line that also includes seniors Michael Hoffman, Tucker Newell and Wilson Meeks. Midfielder Jack Cimino leads the offense, having racked up 17 goals and 31 assists this year. The Irish will look for their sixth state championship while the Bees seek their second in three years after winning in 2016.
Robert C. Byrd (16-3-3) vs. Winfield (22-0-1), 30 minutes after conclusion of first game: The Generals are back in the state tournament after a couple of years with bitter postseason losses and bring the Kanawha Valley’s only undefeated record with them. Evan McCray has piled up 33 goals and 40 assists to highlight an offense with plenty of weapons, including Braxton Vanscoy (20 goals) and Ryan Shrewsbury (20 goals). Robert C. Byrd will seek a third straight championship while the Generals look for their first title-game berth.
Class AAA girls
Wheeling Park (14-3-2) vs. George Washington (15-4-3), 10:30 a.m.: A group of seven senior starters will look to capitalize on one final shot at a state title as GW looks to win its first state championship despite four title-game appearances. Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Riley Lohan anchors the Patriots’ defense and is dangerous on the attack as well, scoring 10 goals from a center back spot. Goalkeeper Katy Darnell (15 shutouts), Emily Lewis (22 goals), Carly Smithson (29 assists) and sophomore Kalissa Lacy (11 goals, 14 assists) are some of the team’s statistical leaders. Wheeling Park won four titles in a row from 1998-2001 but has not won a championship since.
Hedgesville (15-3) vs. Hurricane (15-3-2), 30 minutes after conclusion of first game: Freshman Bailey Fisher emerged this season as one of the premier players in the Kanawha Valley, winning the Rookie of the Year award while booting home 36 goals, good enough for second in the Valley scoring race behind South Charleston’s Maggie Britt (46 goals). Fisher leads an attack that also features senior Sydney Wheeler (18 goals) and solid support on the back end led by goalie Olivia Bird (12 shutouts). Hedgesville will look to become the first Eastern Panhandle team to win a title since Jefferson in 2007.
Class AA-A girls
Oak Glen (18-1) vs. Charleston Catholic (15-2-3), 4:30 p.m.: The Irish will look to take one more step after falling in the state title game two years in a row. The return of senior forward Mills Mullen, who missed most the season recovering from a knee injury, has added extra punch to an attack led this season by junior Lindsey Carr (24 goals, 10 assists) and freshman Bella Cinco (18 goals). Seniors Anna Hewitt and Jenna Jordan along with sophomore Audrey Miller help anchor the back end. Like the boys, Catholic’s girls will seek their sixth crown while Oak Glen looks for its first state tournament win.
Robert C. Byrd (15-4-3) vs. Winfield (22-1-2), 30 minutes after conclusion of first game: The Generals had their string of five straight titles snapped by Catholic in a semifinal a year ago and will look to to start a new one. The Generals are experienced with eight starters from a year ago led by junior forward Peyton Frohnapfel (31 goals, 12 assists) and a pair of senior captains in defender Grace Cole and midfielder Savannah Hoff. Junior keeper Emily Hudson led the Kanawha Valley with 17 shutouts, with plenty of help on the back line from juniors Kalei Jordan, Mara McGrew and others. Byrd won its first state title a year ago, knocking off the Irish in the finals.