FLATWOODS Drew Clark can influence a match at any spot on the field.
When Russell cut Ashland’s lead to one with 14 minutes remaining in the 63rd District Tournament semifinals, coach Preston Freeman moved Clark to the midfield to add another layer of defense.
Clark had already done his damage on the offensive end. The senior recorded two second-half goals, which proved to be the difference in the Tomcats’ 3-2 victory over the host Red Devils on Tuesday night.
“He is the vocal leader on this team,” Freeman said of Clark. “He did a good job in the second half. He scored a goal early and then did a great job of staying back to minimize their chances in the midfield.”
The Tomcats have faced another difficult schedule to prepare them for big moments in the postseason. The defending region champions won their second one-goal contest against Russell in the last eight days.
“I think we were well-prepared,” Freeman said. “We took a lot of thumpings this year. We played some very good teams. We would go to practice the next day and work on things.
“I could care less if we won a game in the regular season,” he added. “I want to be building towards the postseason and win games there.”
Ashland (9-11) focused on limiting the Red Devils’ scoring opportunities in the final 40 minutes. The Tomcats found one in the opening seconds.
Santiago Gutierrez slipped the ball between defenders to Clark in the box and the shot maker blasted it past the keeper 28 seconds after intermission. It broke a 1-1 tie.
“It was what we have been talking about,” Freeman said, “getting the ball wide and moving it across the field and putting it into the back of the net. They came out on fire. We went after the ball, they got possession and we put the ball in the net. It was great. We scored one at the beginning of each half.”
The Tomcats scored first five minutes into the match. Clark was the facilitator on this occasion. Clark moved the ball out of the corner and found a streaking Gavin Maynard in front of the goal. The sophomore produced his third score of the year to stake Ashland to an early 1-0 lead.
Ashland held on to the margin until the 21st minute. Nathan Sabotchick sailed the ball over a crowd in the box. Ben Totten leaped to get a foot on it and sent the pass into the waiting twine.
“We have been streaky all year,” Russell coach Randy Vanover said. “We would rattle off three or four goals in a row. We were waiting on that to happen (in the second half). It just didn’t happen tonight.
“We fought back, and we got another goal,” he added. “We had another good chance late. We hit the post. It’s just hard to swallow. The kids worked so hard.”
Parker Miller and Clark synchronized a run midway through the second half. Miller sent a hard cross and Clark accelerated to the ball inside the box. Clark closed ground and managed to get a touch on the ball to redirect it into the net past a diving keeper.
Nathan Totten helped Russell shrink the gap once more with 14 minutes remaining. He collected the ball at the top of box, spun around and rocketed a shot into the top corner of the net.
“(Russell) played physical,” Freeman said. “We had a couple of letdowns in the back. We let No. 22 (Nathan Totten) get loose on his left foot and he buried one. We told them again tonight that we must keep putting him on his right. Otherwise, I thought our second half was very good. We played well, possessed in the midfield and created scoring opportunities behind their defense.”
Ashland will meet Boyd County in the district tournament title match for the third straight season at Russell on Thursday.
Russell closes its season at 11-6. The Red Devils made significant progress, according to Vanover, and return several players next year.
“We took a big step this year and we have to take another one next season,” Vanover said. “I’m also tired of saying next year. The kids battled. The seniors worked hard, but sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way.”
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