Relentless – the best way to describe Oak Hill’s performance against Western.
Relentless offensively – particularly in the second half of play, applying consistent and overwhelming pressure on Western’s midfield and defensive back line, creating a plethora of scoring opportunities in the process.
Relentless defensively – clamping down on Western’s forwards and midfielders and never allowing them to establish any sort of rhythm or groove.
And their goalkeeper was relentless, making crucial saves in key situations when his name was called upon.
All of those factors put together led to their most dominant performance of the season and their first sectional championship in four years, as Oak Hill defeated longtime nemesis Western, 4-0, on Saturday night at Northwestern to win the Sectional 21 crown.
“A sectional championship always feels good,” Oak Hill Head Coach Joel Garverick said. “With all the stuff going on with COVID and everything else, we didn’t know if this moment was going to happen for anybody. To have that happen in a year like this year is really, really sweet. I’m really happy for my guys that they get to experience this feeling.”
After three straight losses to the Panthers in three previous sectional championship contests, the Golden Eagles finally found their redemption on Saturday night.
“We’ve been chomping at the bit to get back at Western for a long time,” Garverick said. “We’ve been focused on that, and we’ve had that in the back of our minds since the end of last year. Our guys didn’t just say, ‘We want this,’ they put in the work for it as well. I’m proud of how far they’ve come. I thought they played excellent tonight. I’m really proud of how they played. Definitely our most complete performance of the year.”
Saturday night’s result was not just a product of one near flawless match. It was a combination of hard work and dedication, as well as letting the heartbreak of previous years to both fuel and motivate them.
“This is beyond belief. I have been dreaming about this since the seventh grade before I even knew how varsity worked,” Oak Hill striker Dalian Leach said. “We deserved this. We honestly deserved this. I don’t want to be cocky; I want to be humble, but we have worked as a team so well.”
From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, it was clear that the Golden Eagles meant business.
While Oak Hill played well as a cohesive unit all evening, it was Leach and Pearce that set the tone for the entire contest. The two combined for all four goals – scoring two apiece – and their chemistry on the field with one another was clear.
“We’re brothers,” Leach added. “We are all brothers. We treat each other like brothers. On and off the field, we take care of each other. It doesn’t matter when or where; we are going to be there for each other. That has helped us trust on the field. We push each other every day.”
The Panthers fired off the first few shots of the contest, but it did not take long for Oak Hill to settle into their gameplan.
After softening up the Western defense, the Golden Eagles got to work sending balls up the pitch to Leach and Pearce, allowing the talented duo to create for themselves and for others.
Oak Hill’s crisp ball movement led to their first goal at the 21:23 mark of the first half. Clayton Macy sent a perfect pass to a streaking Pearce down the right side of the pitch, and Pearce, after gathering the pass, crossed the ball in front of the net to Leach. Leach made no mistake, punching the cross home to give the Golden Eagles a 1-0 lead.
“Evan and Dalian have a special relationship,” Garverick said. “They’ve worked really hard to get to where they are now. They complement each other so well. Evan is the freight train. Dalian is the finesse, technical player. They look for each other, they play off of each other, and they play for each other.”
While only scoring one goal in the first half, the Golden Eagles kept the pressure on, recording nine shots in opening 40 minutes. Western also recorded nine shots, four of which were on target, but Seth O’Blenis stood tall, making four saves.
In need of another goal to give themselves a little breathing room, the Leach-Pearce struck again early in the second half. Leach found Pearce in space in front of the net, and Pearce capitalized, doubling Oak Hill’s advantage.
The turning point of the contest came around the 31-minute mark of the second half. On a rare offensive push, the Panthers recorded three straight corner kicks, creating several excellent scoring chances right in front of the net.
But O’Blenis, who has been nothing short of spectacular since moving into the starting role, made two huge saves on point blank shots, keeping the Panthers from cutting into Oak Hill’s lead. That sequence of saves kept Oak Hill in the drivers’ seat, and 10 minutes later, Pearce put the game on ice, scoring his second goal off an assist from Grant Elzinga.
“Seth came up big,” Garverick said. “He had his teammate’s backs, made some huge saves for us in some crucial moments, and kept our momentum forward.”
Leach capped off the scoring less than five minutes, heading one in off a corner kick from Weston Seybold to secure Oak Hill’s hard-fought, and well-earned, triumph.
In the second half, Oak Hill’s dominance was apparent. They outshot Western by an incredible 16-3 margin, including a 9-3 edge in shots on goal.
“We’ve been grinding for it for three years now,” Pearce said. “I feel like the hard work we put in all season has just really paid off.”
While Garverick and the Golden Eagles are thrilled to win a sectional championship, the work is just beginning. Now, the focus shifts to the regional, and Yorktown.
“I don’t think I will have to talk to these guys too much. They are still hungry,” Garverick said. “We’ve got a great group of seniors who aren’t satisfied with where we are at yet. We are definitely going to celebrate this tonight, but at the same time, once tomorrow hits, we are going to start preparing for regionals.”