The West Holmes girls soccer team has certainly raised the level of the program over the last two seasons.
On Saturday, though, Columbus St. Francis DeSales demonstrated why it's in a class all by itself.
The Knights' prize for reaching the first regional final in school history was a date with the defending state champions and the Stallions didn't disappoint, using lockdown defense to shut out West Holmes 2-0 in the Div. II Zanesville Regional final.
West Holmes' defense held DeSales (14-7-1) in check for the majority of the opening half, allowing just a pair of shots in the first 37 minutes. The Stallions, however, broke through with 3:19 left before the break on a strong left-footed shot from Alvi Shivley from 20 yards out.
DeSales coach Bob McGee said that score gave his team confidence going into the half.
"That was key because West Holmes had done a great job of getting numbers on the ball," said McGee. "You have to get that first goal to break the ice and calm those nerves."
West Holmes (15-5-1) coach Josh Wengerd said Shivley's goal changed the complexion of the game.
"Going in 0-0, especially when you're the underdog, gives you the momentum," said Wengerd. "When you give up one late, it breaks your back."
After the intermission, West Holmes keeper Shelby Harris, who finished with eight saves, skied for a nice stop eight minutes into the half, only to see the Stallions tack on an insurance goal with 31:42 to play. Sierra Mergliano fired one between the pipes on an assist from Lydia Burke.
"That deflated us early in the second half," said Wengerd, "but the effort was there the whole game."
DeSales' second score all but sealed the game because the Stallions' goal may as well have been defended by an ADT security system. On the day, the Knights mustered just one shot, which came in the first half on a direct kick outside the box from Abby Callahan. Callahan's shot was just high and that turned out to be the Knights' best scoring opportunity in the game.
McGee said the difference was that his forwards and midfielders controlled the ball up top, leading to limited chances for West Holmes' offense.
"We knew West Holmes had dangerous players up top," he said. "The midfield and front line prevented balls from coming through. The back line made it so that if they did get through, they couldn't turn toward the goal."
DeSales, which enjoyed a 10-1 edge in shots and 8-0 advantage in corners, dominated possession because its touches were as soft and crisp as pastries.
"They played the ball well," said Wengerd. "They made the right passes and checked out toward the ball. We were inclined to sit back and watch it happen and they made it happen."
Playing on turf also strengthened DeSales' precision attack.
"Their first-touch passes were perfect," said Wengerd. "They play on turf regularly and it's so much faster. Anytime we had a bad touch, they were there to put the pressure back on us.
"The turf magnifies the bad touches," he added. "The ball bounces true and magnifies every mistake that you make."
In bowing out to the defending state champions, though, Wengerd emphasized that his players had every reason to go out with their heads held high. At the beginning of every season, Wengerd's charge to his team is the same -- have a better season than the previous one. After making it to regionals for the first time ever in 2011, in preseason he admitted that would be difficult to do this time around.
However, in making it one game farther than last year, Wengerd's team did just that. The Knights also set the school record for most wins in a season with 15 and, in midseason, received votes in the state poll for the first time.
"This year was so different," said Wengerd. "We graduated so many players. Even though we're young, they're skilled players and good athletes and that's what's enabled us to improve.
"Last year it was more the desire and the will that spurred us on," he added. "This year it was the talent that helped us raise the bar."