Adams, Cueni-Smith Rescue Chillicothe HS Soccer Hornets’ Season

Defender’s play late in OT, midfielder’s first goal of ’21 decisive in 3-2 district-semifinal win Monday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Firing from 18 yards out, senior Ben Cueni-Smith Chillicothe High School Hornets delivers the match-winning goal in CHS' unexpectedly-tight 3-2 Class 2 District 8 boys' soccer tournament win over Savannah Monday night (Nov. 1, 2021) at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II in Chillicothe. It was Cueni-Smith's first goal of the season and No. 6 of his career.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Their expectation of victory on the night, their projected new team record for wins in a season, their record winning streak, and even the continuation of their season reprieved by sophomore back Josh Adams’ desperate, sliding interdiction of a Savannah shot seemingly about to produce a major upset in the final 30 seconds of a 15-minutes first overtime period Monday, the Chillicothe High School soccer Hornets made the most of that “stay of execution.”

Five minutes after Adams’ sliding clearance out of play of Savannah’s bid to complete a post-halftime comeback from a 2-0 deficit with a goal that would have terminated the Hornets’ season, senior outside midfielder Ben Cueni-Smith drilled a deflected cross-pitch pass from Chace Corbin into the lower right corner of the Savages’ goal in the contest’s 100th minute – the 20th of "sudden-victory" overtime – to hand Chillicothe a 3-2 triumph in its Class 2 District 8 tournament semifinal match.

The record-setting, double-overtime win extends the Hornets’ season by at least two days and gives them a crack at both their program’s first-ever 20-wins season and a berth in the state tournament.

The opportunity to achieve those twin objectives simultaneously will arrive at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II home Wednesday at 6 p.m. when they square off with top-seeded St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond.

Coincidentally, Bishop LeBlond’s Golden Eagles – 5-1 semifinal winners over Kirksville immediately before CHS’ unexpected Monday nailbiter – is the tourney’s No. 1 seed because it is the last team to defeat the Hornets.

It did so by a 3-1 count on Litton Stadium’s artificial-turf Bob Fairchild Field pitch Sept. 9. Since then, Chillicothe has strung together a program-best-ever 17 victories in succession, turning what was a 2-3 record after the early-season setback into a 19-3 campaign that on Monday night established a new CHS high for wins in a season. In both 2012 and 2013, the booters posted 18 conquests.

“I know the team is excited to get to play for the district championship at our stadium and in front of our crowd!” CHS head coach Tim Cunningham observed in the aftermath of the scary semifinal.

The chance for Chillicothe to play on resulted, in equal parts, from two largely-unsung team members’ spotlight moments – Jo. Adams’ hustling defensive effort and skill and Cueni-Smith’s quick snipe.

With Savannah having come off the deck in the middle of the second half to score goals in the 50th and 67th minutes to erase the heavily-favored Hornets’ lead, repeated Chillicothe offensive thrusts trying to reclaim the lead in the remaining 13-plus minutes of regulation time were repelled by hot-handed Savages senior goalkeeper Stephan Loewe.

The last of Loewe’s strong saves came on Cosgrove’s high, hard bid from only about 15-17 yards away in the center of the pitch with only 10 seconds to go, an attempt resulting from a Cueni-Smith steal and pass about 40 yards out seconds before.

When that last-gasp overture was rebuffed, the result was an unexpected trip to, potentially, as many as 30 minutes of “sudden-victory” overtime and, lacking a decision in that span, a decisive penalty-kicks “shootout” crapshoot of at least five rounds of alternating shots by the two teams.

As had been the case during the stretch run of regulation time, Chillicothe clearly had the better of play.

Inside the first two minutes of OT, the Hornets had a direct free kick from only about 20 yards wide on the left flank that created a scramble in front of the goal and led to a CHS corner kick from the right side. However, Savannah denied that, as well.

A couple of minutes later, S. Reeter broke in on Loewe, but couldn’t solve him from short range. Again, a dangerous corner kick – this time from the offensive left – resulted, but it was curled harmlessly high over the goal, easing the strain on the Savages’ defense again.

As the last three minutes of OT No. 1 began to drain from the clock, Chillicothe received another direct free-kick opportunity, this time from about 30 yards away in the center of the pitch, only to have Cosgrove’s try sail a bit over the net.

However, only about a half-minute later, Chillicothe had the ball near midfield and played it ahead, seemingly springing sniper Cosgrove in on the goalie, one on one. As the Hornets faithful sprang to their feet in anticipation and the Savannah fans groaned, the CHS forward made a quick move to his left and slid the ball along the turf past Loewe and into the net for a seeming game-winning goal.

As multiple joyous teammates raced to congratulate Cosgrove, about a third of the way up the field, the sideline official had ruled Cosgrove to have been offside by a seemingly-slender, but important, margin, thus negating the goal. It was the third time in the match the same official had whistled such an infraction, erasing subsequent action that had ended with the ball in the Savages’ net.

Perhaps having a bit of an emotional letdown from that “lost” goal and thinking the last half-minute of the overtime would drain off uneventfully, Chillicothe seemed to relax and not scurry to make sure it had strong defensive-third coverage when a seemingly-insignificant pushing foul at midfield gave Savannah a DFK (direct free kick).

That nearly cost the hosts.

A quick drive of the ball from the offensive right side by a SHS back sent the ball bending high toward the center of the pitch just outside the CHS “18” (18-yards deep penalty area). There, a Chillicothe defender whiffed on trying to play it in the air and the ball bounced beyond him, skittering into the CHS penalty space to senior goalkeeper Jaxon Albertson’s right.

Albertson, idle much of the long night and required to save only two shots while SHS’ Loewe was peppered with perhaps as many as 20 or more, decided to try to chase it down, but lost that race to a Savage by a clear margin. Trying then to position himself directly between the opponent who got to the ball only about 15 yards out and the net, Albertson was only partially successful.

With the CHS goalkeeper caught in “no man’s land,” the Savannah attacker pulled a left-footed shot beyond him to Albertson’s left. Even though the shot wasn’t going extremely fast, it was clearly going to be on target, seemingly about to become a match-winner for the underdogs and a shocking season-ender for second-seeded Chillicothe.

Jo. Adams had a different opinion, however.

Dashing back toward the goal through the penalty area at a left-to-right angle (from the defensive perspective), with a Savannah player right alongside, the Hornets sophomore correctly computed in his head the angle needed to intersect the rolling ball’s path before it reached the goal.

That intersecting point came at about the top of the goalie’s box, seven yards from the goal line, but still in the center of the pitch, meaning an attempted, but contested, redirection by him might still leave the ball “on net.”

Going into a slide to widen his scope of contact with the shot while the SHS player alongside stretched out own leg to try to touch the ball first, the ball caromed away with added velocity, careening about five yards wide of the right goalpost and beyond the end line. Although different observers, including members of the CHS coaching staff, had varying perceptions on which team’s player made the contact with the ball, the increased pace and the angling of the ball wide of the net suggested it was Jo. Adams who got the touch, a decision the not-too-far away referee also chose as he awarded Savannah a corner kick from its offensive left side.

Although the Savages rushed and got the kick away, the Hornets managed to clear it out of danger upfield and the last seconds of the first overtime drained away.

The second OT saw Savannah do a better job of limiting CHS’ scoring chances through the first few minutes. Then, on a seemingly-innocuous pursuit of the ball about 35 yards from the SHS goal and well toward the offensive right, the tumblers began falling into place for the game-deciding sequence.

As Corbin tracked the ball with a defender between himself and it, he tried to accelerate around him. Contact ensued and Corbin tumbled to the turf from what seemed likely to be considered incidental, not illegal, side-to-side contact.

However, the nearby referee’s whistle tweeted and a bumping foul was called against the Savannah player, giving Chillicothe a DFK from about 35 yards with Cosgrove signaled by coach Cunningham to take it.

Through quick, possibly non-verbal, communication, the Hornets’ dynamic attacking duo of Cosgrove and Corbin synched a plan for the kick. Rather than attempt a hard, high shot over or around the human “wall” multiple Savages formed 10 yards away between himself and the net, Cosgrove lofted a shorter, softer kick to land about midway into the SHS penalty area, where Corbin was dashing, hoping to gather it in with room to take a more-dangerous, close-range shot or use his nimble footwork to elude defenders and the goalkeeper for an open shot at the net.

However, Savannah read the free kick well and prevented an unfettered Corbin reception of it. Instead the Hornet could only control it by nudging it farther to the outside, away from the goal. As he did so, two Savages battled him for the ball as it rolled just outside the penalty area’s right edge.

Suddenly, Corbin went down again, appearing to prompt one of the SHS players to back away a step or two to the outside to visually convince the referee he had not done something illegal.

In the split second when some players seemed to pause – and fans in the grandstands, too – to see if a foul would be called, the Hornets star quickly sprang back to his feet and recollected the ball beneath him. With no whistle heard, that gave Corbin time to get a step or two away from the other defender toward the goal line well wide of the SHS net.

With play continuing uninterrupted, that space and time allowed him to loop a high “cross” (horizontal pass from the perimeter toward the center of the pitch) into the area in front of the Savannah goal, but about 15 yards away.

While several players were there, none could get an immediate, clean touch on it. However, lurking there at the top of the penalty area was CHS’ Cueni-Smith, an accomplished ballhandler and playmaker, but not often a goal producer during his four years as a Hornets starter.

With a chance to control the ball and either dribble a bit to try to find a shot for himself or a teammate or simply trigger a shot from about 18 yards away, the senior surprisingly chose that third option.

As a fictional movie character might have said, he chose wisely.

Swinging his right foot through the ball, Cueni-Smith uncorked a hard, ground-hugging shot off to his left toward the right corner of the Savannah goal. Somehow, the ball zipped untouched through a group of players between the shooter and the goal and Loewe did not have time to make a dash and dive to his right to get to the beautifully-aimed shot. Only nine seconds shy of 100 minutes of elapsed playing time, the ball crossed the line into the SHS goal and, on Cueni-Smith’s first goal of the 2021 season and only the sixth of his career, the Hornets had survived and advanced.

Chillicothe High School soccer Hornets race to congratulate senior teammate Ben Cueni-Smith (19) after he scored the match-winning goal 19:51 seconds into overtime Monday (Nov. 1, 2021). The 3-2 win over Savannah came in the semifinals of the Class 2 District 8 tournament at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II in Chillicothe.

The opportunity to earn a fourth district crown and appearance in state-tournament competition seemed to be a virtual foregone conclusion when the Hornets – twice winners previously over Savannah in 2021 by a combined count of 8-1 – took a 2-0 lead only 11 seconds into the second half of Monday’s contest.

Chillicothe High School Hornets senior forward Drake Cosgrove heads the ball over onrushing Savannah goalkeeper Stefan Loewe for the first goal of Monday's Class 2 District 8 boys' soccer tournament semifinal match at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II in Chillicothe. The goal was Cosgrove's team-record 32nd of the season. After Savannah rallied from a 2-0 deficit to force overtime, CHS won 3-2 in double-OT.

In front 1-0 at intermission on senior forward Drake Cosgrove’s team-record-setting 32nd goal of the season – a 6-yards header over the SHS goalkeeper off a head pass from Sam Reeter only 5:44 before halftime, CHS lined up for the start of the second 40-minutes segment to defend against Savannah’s initial possession of the ball.

As the Savages tapped the kickoff backward from midfield, the Hornets advanced, prompting a further backward pass to the defensive left side of the field.

As that Savage controlled the ball and was approached by a Chillicothe player, he directed the ball horizontally toward the center of the pitch to a teammate who seemingly presumed he’d have plenty of time and space to try to look for an opportunity to pass the ball ahead in an attempt to initiate a SHS attack.

However, surprisingly and surreptitiously, Hornets senior attacking midfielder Chace Corbin had moved upfield aggressively, so much so that, when the SHS player turned to look upfield toward the Chillicothe end of the pitch, Corbin was right in his face.

Before the opponent knew what was happening, the Hornet’s leg and foot had extended and tapped the ball right off the Savage’s foot, a steal which stunningly and suddenly created a breakaway toward the Savannah goal for the nimble Chillicothe star from about 35 yards away.

Advancing quickly toward the shocked goalkeeper who understandably was back near his goal line and not anticipating any immediate assault, Corbin opted not to try to outmaneuver the netminder, but instead let go a rather-long, low shot from about 20-23 yards away. Despite not having exceptional velocity, the drive was very well-placed, easily eluding the advancing ’keeper to his left and skittering across the turf to enter the Savannah goal a few yards inside the goal post at Fairchild Field’s north end.

The stunning quick theft and tally both put Chillicothe in front 2-0 and moved Corbin back alongside his teammate as the Hornets’ single-season record-holder for goals at 32.

While the immediate shock factor lifted Chillicothe’s outlook and left Savannah shaken, the longer-term impact appeared to become the opposite.

The Hornets seemed to lose their “edge” on the attack and overall and, possibly in desperation, Savannah grew more assertive and dangerous.

Less than 10 minutes into the second half, the match returned to a 1-goal margin when the Savages’ Luke Bowie picked the far, top corner of the net with a 35-yards shot from far on the offensive left side after the Hornets only partially cleared away a SHS left corner kick.

It remained 2-1 until 13:47 was left to play, when – as the result of the Hornets having a clearing attempt in the aftermath of a midfield throw-in partially blocked – Savannah’s Brendan McKnight was able to advance the ball to within about 18-20 yards and slide a low, left-footed shot by Albertson.

Unexpectedly, with just over 13 minutes to go, the match was completely up for grabs, a state it stayed in for 33 minutes until Cueni-Smith struck.

“Tonight's match is what high school athletics are about,” Hornets coach Cunningham reflected in his comments for local media, “both teams competing at a high level and neither team wanting its season to end.

“Our guys played so hard and so well together, just as we have done all year.”

Statistically, the match produced one other Chillicothe record-setting or resetting stat beyond the new mark for team wins in a season, the extension of the winning streak standard, and the individual goals mark for a season Corbin and Cosgrove continue to share.

The other new mark also was an extension by Corbin, who – by being credited with an assist on the match-winner became the first Hornet ever to deliver 20 “dimes” in a season. He’d broken the former record of 18 in the previous CHS district outing.

With his Monday tally, Cosgrove’s career goals total grew to 53, two short of Steven Cooper’s CHS career record. Corbin’s score against Savannah was No. 51 on his career, moving him into a tie for third in CHS history with Mason Baxter and Jon Kline.