TIPP CITY — After winning the program’s first state championship last year, the Tippecanoe boys soccer team celebrated — and then got back to work.
That work has the Red Devils picking up steam towards a possible title defense.
“I think it’s finally kicking in — we’re realizing that we can have another good run,” Downing said.
Blake Heeley and Jackson Kleather scored back-to-back goals early in the first half and Evan Stonerock added an insurance goal early in the second half, more than enough as the Tippecanoe defense posted its 18th shutout of the season, giving the Devils a 3-0 victory over St. Francis DeSales in the Division II regional semifinal Wednesday night at Tipp City Park.
Tippecanoe, which finished ranked No. 3 in the state’s final D-II poll, improved to 21-0 with the win, its 34th straight. The Red Devils advanced to the regional final where it will face Summit Country Day — the last team to defeat the Devils in a regional semifinal game all the way back on Oct. 31, 2018. St. Francis DeSales, which was ranked No. 9 in that final poll, finished the season 9-8-1.
The Devils faced little competition playing a Miami Valley League-only schedule in the regular season, only giving up four goals all year — three of them coming in two wins over league runner-up Troy — and outscoring opponents 103-4 in the regular season. And since the postseason has began, the Devils have now posted five straight shutouts and won those games by a combined score of 24-0.
“It’s less motivating I have to do. When the kids come to play, they’re tough to stop,” Downing said of the tougher competition the Devils have seen in the tournament. “Our midfield did a lot better job tonight. I don’t think they were used to playing teams like Oakwood (in the district final), but that woke them up a bit and gave them a chance to play with more possession and composure tonight. And if you look at our defense, we’ve only given up four goals all year.”
And that defense looked tougher than ever Wednesday night. DeSales’ lone quality scoring chance came midway through the first half on a 25-yard shot, but Tippecanoe goalie Clay Vaughn was in perfect position to make an easy save. He finished the night with six saves, and the Stallions never truly threatened.
“Clay does a great job in goal, and our defense has just been so strong all year. These four aren’t the guys you want to have guarding you on your back, and rarely do they lose a head ball.”
And after a series of scoring chances early, the Devils got on the board with 28:45 to go in the first half. A pass by Kleather gave Heeley a one-on-one with the Stallions’ goalie, and he couldn’t wrap up Heeley’s shot and allowed it to trickle behind him and into the goal to give Tippecanoe a 1-0 lead. And with 26:33 left in the half, Heeley crossed the ball to Kleather in front, who redirected it in to make the score 2-0 and put DeSales back on its heels.
“We were just trying to come out and play with some motivation,” Heeley said. “We came out strong and put the game away.”
“If you miss those early opportunities, it could haunt you. You might not get another chance,” Downing said. “The last two games, we’ve come out and scored pretty early. Last game (against Oakwood), we got up 2-0 in the first half. Same tonight.”
Tippecanoe remained up by two goals at halftime, but Stonerock added one more with 37:34 remaining in the second half. Sprung by a pass by Kleather, Stonerock beat the DeSales goalie one on one to put the Devils up 3-0 and seal the game — and the defense did the rest.
“You know that when you get this far in the tournament that anything can happen,” Downing said. “One mistake and that’s it. You’re headed home. But we’ve done a good job of limiting mistakes, and defensively we’ve been extremely strong. We scored some nice goals tonight, too. It’s fun to see them keep winning.”
And all that has the Devils back in the regional final.
“It’s a great feeling. We’re just trying to bring one more ring home,” Heeley said.
Tippecanoe will face Summit Country Day in Saturday’s regional final at 3 p.m. at Tipp City Park. Ranked No. 8 in the final state poll, the X defeated No. 4 Wyoming 2-1 in overtime in Wednesday’s other regional semifinal.