With each passing contest, the Oak Hill Golden Eagles continue meld together as a unit, showcasing their talent, their technical prowess, and their confidence.
The Golden Eagles are proficient in multiple areas. They move well with and without the ball and are able to create scoring opportunities with their speed, their strength, and their sharp passes. Defensively, they are solid at all three levels and they make it difficult for their opponents to find much of a rhythm. And in goal, they have an up-and-coming goalkeeper in Seth O’Blenis, who has been tremendous in net in his first full season as the starter.
Against longtime rival Marion on Wednesday in the annual boys and girls soccer doubleheader, the Golden Eagles put together one of their best efforts of the season, remaining undefeated with a 3-1 win triumph over the Giants at Dick Lootens Stadium.
“I’m very proud of how we played tonight,” Oak Hill Head Coach Joel Garverick said. “It’s definitely the hardest we’ve played all year, and definitely the most heart we have put into a performance. I thought tonight was our best game of the year.”
Dalian Leach continued his stellar senior campaign, scoring twice in the contest, while Evan Pearce added the game winner in the latter stages of the second half. Mark Sevier, Grant Elzinga, and Hank VanBibber each collected assists, while O’Blenis recovered from an early goal allowed to make three saves in the winning effort.
“Hats off to Oak Hill. Joel has done a nice job,” Marion Head Coach Jorge Berry said. “They have a good core of seniors, and they all play for each other. Not for themselves, but for each other, and it shows. They did really, really well.”
JD Fagan scored Marion’s lone goal, while goalkeeper Malik Smith was sturdy in net for the Giants, making 10 saves, including nine in the first half.
After a handball infraction was committed by Oak Hill in the first five minutes of the contest, Marion capitalized, as Fagan connected on the ensuing penalty kick to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.
However, the Giants did not hold the advantage for long, as Leach answered with a brilliant goal of his own to tie the match at 1-1. VanBibber fired a perfect cross, and Leach made no mistake, sailing the ball over the head of Smith and into the back of the net.
When Marion and Oak Hill get together, the contests are usually physical in nature, and Wednesday night was no exception. However, after Leach’s goal, the Golden Eagles settled into their gameplan, not allowing the game’s physicality to affect their emotions.
“I talked to some of the guys and I talked to them as a group and said, ‘These are the things we need to work on and we need to play a mentally focused game,’” Garverick said. “I thought they responded well to that conversation.”
On the defensive side of the pitch, Oak Hill made it a priority to keep Fagan, Kyle Coryea, and Alex Powell contained. Minus Fagan’s opening goal, Marion’s talented trio were kept under wraps.
“The three of those players are very dynamic, but we made some adjustments, especially in the second half, to try to limit the access they had to the ball,” Garverick said. “We tried to control the game in the midfield. You are never going to completely control those guys, but I thought our defenders did a really, really good job tonight of doing what they needed to do.”
For the rest of the first half, Oak Hill asserted their will on Marion’s side of the pitch, firing 14 shots in the Smith’s direction. However, the senior was up to the task, making save after save to keep the game tied after the first 40 minutes of play.
The two teams continued to battle in the opening 20 minutes of the second half, with neither teams’ defense budging an inch. However, with 21:08 remaining, Leach was able to break through the Marion defense on an excellent feed from Elzinga, punching one past Smith to give Oak Hill a 2-1 lead – one they would not relinquish.
“Dalian has the athleticism, but where he separates himself is his technical ability,” Garverick said. “The amount of time that he has put in the last four years is just really incredible. He’s a testament to what hard work will get you. You know that Dalian is going to bring it and contribute on the offensive end every game.”
Just over a minute after Leach’s second tally, Evan Pearce took advantage of a Marion defensive gaffe, providing the Golden Eagles with insurance and a little cushion. Oak Hill played stellar defense the rest of the way, securing their sixth win in the process.
With another tough stretch of matches coming up, Garverick is looking for his team to continue to take it one day, and one game, at a time.
“It’s a next game up mentality,” Garverick said. “I preach that pretty much every day. One practice at a time and one game at a time. We have to continue to work on some tactical aspects of our game. In moments like these and games like these where the intensity is high and the pressure is high, we have to keep our heads and keep our composure both mentally and tactically and be able to execute the gameplan.”
While they lost the game, the Giants also lost two of their top stars. Coryea was given a red card late in the contest, which is an automatic one-game suspension, while Fagan strained his hamstring, putting his status for future contests in jeopardy.
Regardless, for Berry and the Giants, the goal is to regroup and put this game behind them.
“We lost this game, and we lost two very, very important players to our side,” Berry said. “We just have to get back and start again from the drawing board and break these things down. We cannot let this bother us, we can’t. This game is over, we just have to move on.”