Bears going the distance

NEW MANCHESTER – Oak Glen’s Aaron Bennett doesn’t really know if any former Golden Bears boys soccer teams have been this far in the playoffs.

He just knows his team wants to go further.

Oak Glen will take on East Fairmont at 7 p.m. Thursday in the West Virginia Class AA-A Section 1 regional championship at Jimmy Carey Stadium. The winner gets a trip to the state tournament in Beckley.

“We’ve been on a good run,” said Bennett.

He’s not kidding.

The Bears have won 10 of their last 12, including a pair of wins over rival Weir High and a 5-2 sectional championship victory over Tyler Consolidated last Saturday at the Bears Den.

“I’m not sure Tyler knew what hit them,” Bennett said matter-of-factly. “We came out and jumped on them early with the wind at our backs and kept the pressure on the whole game.

“They beat us 3-0 to begin the season, but we surely weren’t the same team now we were way back then.”

That was Aug. 24.

Oak Glen was 3-5 and had lost four in a row following a 1-0 loss to East Liverpool on Sept. 10.

“Very simply put, we finally got everyone back and healthy,” said Bennett. “Once everybody was back, it took us one game to start clicking again and we were back on track playing the way we needed to play.

“The boys figured it out themselves. Once we got everybody back and in the right positions, the boys settled down and were comfortable with each other. They trusted each other.

“What happened was not just a personal confidence, but a confidence in each other to know each player was going to be where they were supposed to be at all times.”

The Bears won six in a row in a two-week span, including a 2-1 win at Steubenville Big Red and a 1-0 victory at Weir High.

“When we were losing those games, I kept telling the kids it was just a matter of us getting hot at the right time,” said the coach.

“Beating Big Red was the start of that. When we beat them, we all knew we had the capability of beating Weir and all the rest of the teams on our schedule.

“We knew we could challenge and beat the bigger opponents on the schedule. That win was a huge turning point to the season.”

Wins against Indian Creek (4-1), East Liverpool (1-0) and Jefferson County Christian (6-1) proceeded a 4-1 loss at East Fairmont on Sept. 28.

“Thursday should be a very good game,” said Bennett, who is in his second year. “We did some good things when we played them down there. We know it sure will be a challenge. You don’t get this far in the playoffs without every game being a challenge.

“The weather makes me a little nervous, but it will be the same for both teams. They have very skilled players in the middle. A lot of their passes go back to the top and they fire from 18-to-25 yards out. We have to be prepared for that.

“We have to put high pressure on them and make sure Nate (goalkeeper Nate Bennett) can get a good eye on the ball and see where it’s coming in from.”

East Fairmont is 8-1-1 coming into the contest with a 1-0 loss to Fairmont Senior (Oct. 10) and a 0-0 tie with powerful Bridgeport (Oct. 15). East Fairmont avenged the loss to its neighbor with a 2-0 victory in the sectional final.

“We have worked very hard to get to this point,” said coach Bennett. “I wish I could tell you it was something magical why we have been playing so well. We have seven core kids and as long as they are playing as good as they can, along with the rest of the team doing the same thing, I like our chances.”

There is also one big difference from a year ago.

“We weren’t a goal-scoring team last year,” said the coach.

This season Oak Glen has been shut out twice in 20 outings (13-7) and has had nine games of scoring at least four goals.

Leading the way there are forward Devin Polen. Cullen Bennett, Addison Sayre and Justin Bailey patrol the middle, Chris Bailey and Ian Travis the defense and Nate Bennett is in goal.

“We have players who have played classic soccer in Pittsburgh and two who went to the indoor nationals twice. We have boys who know how to play competitive soccer and they know how to win,” said Bennett.