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West Branch hands Salem first loss on way to Eastern Buckeye title

SALEM — If there’s one thing better than watching a Salem-West Branch game in any sport, it’s when there’s a conference title on the line.

That was the scenario Wednesday evening as the talented, arch-rival Quaker and Warrior girls soccer teams collided at Sebo Stadium. It was a winner-take-all match with the outright Eastern Buckeye Conference championship at stake.

When the smoke cleared, it was West Branch which emerged with a 3-0 triumph over the Quakers and the league crown. It marked the Warriors’ seventh consecutive league title (Northeastern Buckeye Conference and Eastern Buckeye Conference combined) in girls soccer.

“We graduated 11 or 12 seniors last year and of those more than half were starters, so coming into this year it was kind of a rebuilding year, but with all the work everybody put in, it all came together,” said a pleased West Branch coach Cheryl Ficco. “Coming into Salem we knew anything can happen and the girls knew that. It’s one of those big games and they really came together today and put in a great team performance.”

“They (the Warriors) are fast and they’re strong,” said Salem coach Kent Paulini.

With the win, West Branch is now 13-1-2 on the season and finished 6-0 in the EBC.

“It’s been a nice run, I’ve been (head coach) for the last four (league crowns),” said Ficco. “The program has been very successful and we have had a great group of girls who have consistently come through for the past seven seasons.”

It marked Salem’s first loss of the season as the Quakers are now 14-1-1 and they finished 5-1 in the EBC.

Both teams played tremendous defense throughout but West Branch cracked the Quakers’ defense once in the first half and twice in the second half for goals.

West Branch ended with seven shots on goal to the Quakers’ four in the game.

“We definitely did focus today on our defensive strategy,” said Ficco, “because we knew Salem had a lot of fast, attacking threats: Rylee Hutton is very good at getting behind defensive lines and scoring a lot of goals and so is Mikaylynn Murphy and Abby Perry, so we worked the last couple days on how we wanted to set up defensively to really limit any quality shots they had on goal.”

The first West Branch goal was scored by Warrior Addy Jones when she found the back of the net on a one-on-one opportunity at the 27:12 mark of the first half.

“It’s instinct,” said Jones of her goal on an assist from teammate Jillian Pidgeon. “When I made a run, she (Pidgeon) just put the ball right into me.

“It feels so awesome (to win the league again),” added Jones. “This team has overcome a lot losing a lot (of starters from last year) but we did a really good job of working together and coming together and we couldn’t have done it without everyone on the team.”

Although most of the game was played on Salem’s half of the field, scoring opportunities were few for both teams because of their tremendous defense.

West Branch gave itself a 2-0 cushion at the 35:16 mark of the second half when standout Jillian Pidgeon scored. Pidgeon then added an insurance tally at the 15:07 mark when she launched a high-arching boot that just fell under the crossbar and settled into the net as the Warriors led 3-0. Sophia Gregory assisted on one of the goals.

“The first goal I definitely felt very confident going in, but the second one I just kind of got (the ball) off a bounce and I was like, I’ll try it, and I thought it was over (the bar) for sure but when it went in I was just full of excitement,” said Pidgeon. “It’s definitely a big relief (to repeat as league champs). I knew we had to come out today ready to play because Salem is a good team, but I thought we all played well together, we moved the ball and we played quick. It’s definitely a good feeling to get another EBC (title).”

Paulini said despite the tough loss, he was extremely proud of his Salem team.

“I’m still incredibly proud of what our team did,” he said. “That (West Branch) team put up eight and nine goals on a lot of really good teams this year, so to hold them to three goals (is good).”

West Branch goalkeeper Amanda Davidson had four saves and Salem goaltender Sam Moore had three saves in the contest.

Ficco was thankful her team got a chance to even play this season.

“I knew at the beginning of the season that Salem was going to be really good and we’ll see if we even get to play them (due to the pandemic) because we knew it was the last game of the season,” she said. “I know a lot of the girls are just happy to be able to play.”

The Quakers will host the winner of Cardinal Mooney and Jefferson in a sectional final next Thursday.

“We just talked to the girls that the ride’s not over,” said Paulini. “When you go this long without losing one, it’s hard to stomach the loss but we’ll move forward from it and grow.”

West Branch has a first-round bye in the sectional tournament and will host the winner of Crestwood and NDCL next Thursday.

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