Falls finds game, tops Devils

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo Newton Falls’ Sidney Drake kicks the ball as Lordstown’s Kaylynn Higginbotham follows during Thursday’s Division III sectional bracket final in Newton Falls.

NEWTON FALLS — Rick Giuliano says his Newton Falls girls soccer team is vastly improved from the onset of the season.

Thursday, the Tigers briefly went back to their lackadaisical defense and let visiting Lordstown have a couple shots on goal early in a Division III sectional bracket final at Newton Falls High School stadium.

The Tigers got away with it as they eventually tightened up their defense and quickly pulled past the Red Devils, 5-1.

“I thought we were real shaky when we started out,” Giuliano said. “We don’t let a lot of shots on goal like that. We settled down after the first 10 minutes.

“In general, our defense did a real good job.”

That’s because of the team’s leading defender – Tori Blandine. The senior is a returning second-team all-state player.

Blandine didn’t play the first part of the season because she injured her knee.

“Since we’ve had her back, we’ve only given up a goal a game on average,” Giuliano said. “She does great job for us.”

With 38 minutes left in the first half, Tara Backherms had her first of two goals for the Tigers (10-6-1).

She got Makenna Willyard involved with an assist on a goal with 28:44 seconds remaining before intermission.

Backherms and Willyard are Newton Falls’ leading scorers.

“They work well together,” Giuliano said.

Lordstown coach Matt Kresic hoped things would work out for starting goalie Abbey Slaughbaugh, but  was coming off a knee injury in the Red Devils first-round game against Our Lady of the Elms.

She had a two saves, but let three goals go through before Kresic knew his goalie wasn’t feeling right.

“She came out pretty gingerly,” Kresic said. “We let in three. They earned them. In normal conditions it would’ve been different.”

Enter midfielder Kaylynn Higginbotham. She the team’s normal midfielder and only allowed one goal in each half the rest of the way.

Higginbotham dove for the ball numerous times, had a tip to avoid an upper-90 goal en route to 13 saves.

“She’s a great athlete,” Kresic said. “Good team girl. Definitely does what she need to do for the team.”

The Red Devils, with 26 minutes before halftime, had a couple kicks skimming in front of the goal, but couldn’t get a shot on the Tigers’ goalie Micaiah Butler, who had four saves.

Lordstown had another shot, but it sailed over the goal with 26 minutes remaining. Considering the constant downpour throughout the game, the Red Devils fans thought it went in even though hit the goal post and laid to rest on the back of the net.

“Finishing has haunted us all season,” said Kresic, whose team finishes 5-9-2. “I think we’ve created chances. Putting it in is a whole different beast.”

Newton Falls didn’t have that problem, even though the rain led to a muddy field.

“I like the way we move the ball,” Giuliano said. “I like the way we work together, even in this kind of slop. After we started getting used to it, we started to settle down and did a nice job in those aspect.

Hopefully with better weather conditions we’ll do a better job.”

The third-seeded Tigers travel to second-seeded Rootstown Monday at 7 p.m. The Rovers routed Newton Falls earlier this season ? putting up six goals.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Giuliano said. “I told them we’re not the same team we were then. We’re going to give Rootstown all they can handle.”