GRANGER TWP. — The advantage of playing a team you’ve already beaten in the regular season can also be a detriment.
It reared its ugly head Wednesday for the ninth-seeded Highland boys soccer team, as eighth-seeded Firestone walked into North Gateway Field and waltzed out with a 3-2 Akron Division I Sectional semifinal win.
The outcome was a stark contrast from a Sept. 20 game won 6-3 by the Hornets.
“I feel like it’s a similar situation because both teams have an understanding of how each other play,” Highland forward Eli Fragnoli said. “Obviously, one team adapts to the other, but if both teams adapt, it cancels out.”
The wheels never got moving for Highland (6-11), as Firestone (10-6-1) moved on to play three-time defending district champion Medina (11-1-4) on Saturday. The Bees knocked the Falcons out of the playoffs last season.
“It’s more us,” Highland coach Denny Ciornei said. “The whole season has been like this. We take things for granted. We don’t know how to fight for things when it’s right in front of us.
“We always tend to say we’ll get the next one, and that’s not good enough if you want to be a winner on the pitch. In order for us to grow, our culture to fight for one another and to play for one another is going to be the key.”
Highland may have had something else going against it after the girls program beat Firestone 18-0 on Monday to kick off postseason play.
Many of the Falcons players on the boys side took that to heart when they came to play Highland on Wednesday.
Ryan Oderkirk, who assisted Christopher Pongracz twice and scored once, said it was a rallying cry. After the contest, the sophomore was proud to say the win was as much for his team as it was for the girls.
“In the locker room we were talking about it,” Oderkirk said. “It gave us a lot of incentive to come out and work as hard as we could. I do feel redemption for all of Firestone. I feel like we came out and gave it our all. We proved ourselves. It feels a whole lot better knowing that they’re out and we’re going to move on. It shows we’ve improved as a team as well.”
The proof came in the fact Firestone never trailed.
Pongracz sandwiched goals around a score by Fragnoli in the first half and then assisted Oderkirk on his tally after intermission.
While Fragnoli scored twice, it was a far cry from his three-goal, one-assist performance in the first game, and his final goal Wednesday came with 18 seconds left.
“They knew that we liked to play through the middle and then distribute up to me at the top to run,” Fragnoli said. “They had two or three guys on me the entire game. Sometimes that works. Tonight, it did.”
The loss ends Ciornei’s first season at the helm for Highland. The Hornets finished with an identical record as last season.
“I love the fact that I’m starting to get through to the younger ones,” Ciornei said. “It’s tough to change habits, but at the same time I feel bad for such a big senior class to not be able to at least come out with something. As a coach, I feel like I let them down. I have to find something to make us better going forward.”
Firestone 3, Highland 2
Akron Division I Sectional Semifinal
HIGHLAND 1 1 — 2
FIRESTONE 2 1 — 3
F — Christopher Pongracz (Ryan Oderkirk), 27:09.
H — Eli Fragnoli, 20:36.
F — Pongracz (Oderkirk), 11:32.
F — Oderkirk (Pongracz), 34:05.
H — Fragnoli (Christian Heini), 0:18.
Shots on goal — Highland 5, Firestone 4. Corner kicks — Highland 3, Firestone 4. Saves — Seth Chestnut (F) 3, Ben Petersen (H) 1. Records — Highland (6-11), Firestone (10-6-1).