Wickliffe girls soccer: Unbeaten Blue Devils diverse, potent in attack, eager for elusive postseason breakthrough

Sep. 18—The Wickliffe girls side can be forgiven if it's become impatient in a sense at this point.

A model of regular-season consistency, the Blue Devils have shown incremental postseason growth but don't have that elusive regional berth quite yet that could put things over the top in the long term.

This might be the year.

Led by All-Ohio senior midfielder Eliza Wills and a deep side that can pose unique tactical wrinkles with its makeup, Wickliffe is off to a 7-0 start following a 1-0 win Sept. 14 over a familiar foe in Independence.

Girls soccer: Wickliffe remains unbeaten, 1-0, over Independence in battle of Blue Devils

It is the longest unbeaten run to start a season for the program since its 2013 side, which started 8-0, and has garnered recognition in the state coaches' poll. The Blue Devils are 10th in Division III in its latest edition.

#NHsoccer Wickliffe senior defender Annabella Stoehr discusses her side's 1-0 win over Independence to get to 7-0

Her experience & ability to essentially operate as a wingback with license is 1 of many elements that make this Wick side so challenging to defend in the attack

— Chris Lillstrung (@CLillstrungNH) September 15, 2023

"The sky's the limit," Wickliffe coach Steve Gribovicz said. "We're playing confidently. We're playing a style that I don't think we've played in the 15 years I've been here.

"And again, it's the players. The players are stepping up. The players are doing everything. As a coach, it makes my job very easy when they want to be here and they want to do this. They want to try that. It's excellent. I love it."

Wills' tireless workrate, accountability and leadership and on- and off-ball skill as a left mid helps drive the side. She has seven goals and two assists this fall. But Wickliffe has a wealth of experienced options to complement her, including junior striker Ava Gabriel (11-5) and right back Annabella Stoehr (3-3), who can float into the attack and provide value operating essentially as a wingback.

The Blue Devils' understanding in combination play and give-and-go potency makes it a tough side to defend.

What has added to that prowess in the offensive third this fall has been the arrival of sophomore striker Tiana Torrence. Torrence, who has seven goals and six assists, provides a pace option up top arguably not seen in the program to this extent.

"Tiana is the fastest player I've ever played with," Wills said. "She has an amazing workrate. It's great having her up top. She's really strong on the ball. She can hold it up there. Her mids come support her, and when she's on, she is on. Shots are firing. Shots are on frame."

The danger, in turn, emanates from there.

"This is Tiana's first year as a sophomore. She wasn't on the team last year," Gribovicz explained. "But she adds that speed element to our attack, and that brings a whole different dynamic to our offense. She knows how to play the ball. She's got years of experience. So with the shot, with the speed, and then Ava playing physically, those two play off each other very well."

The work in the defensive third has also been laudable to date, with five clean sheets and two goals conceded in seven matches.

"You have the supporting cast behind," Gribovicz said. "The defense is starting to get up into the attack as well. All the pieces are starting to fit together."

Wickliffe has reached double-digit wins in 11 of the last 12 seasons, including a program-high 14 in 2017 and 2018. Following their last sub-.500 campaign in 2010, the Blue Devils have been 142-64-9 since. That now includes their first postseason (2022) and regular-season (2023) victories over Kirtland after a 16-match winless skid in series history prior to last year.

Wickliffe vs. Kirtland girls soccer: Blue Devils prevail, 1-0, in suspended match for first win all-time in series

Despite that regular-season consistency, postseason fortune has been a slower progression. Wickliffe reached a distict final in 2019 and had a shot at another during the COVID season in 2020 taken away in heartbreaking fashion, having to forfeit a district semifinal that year due to a positive coronavirus test.

Wickliffe girls soccer district semifinal canceled after positive COVID-19 test

Last fall, the Blue Devils were the last News-Herald coverage area girls side standing in the postseason. On a rough night locally in which area sides went 0-5 in district finals, Wickliffe was the only one to take its match to extra time against Norwayne, falling, 1-0.

"I think that experience was huge," Gribovicz said. "They learned a lot that season. I think the last eight games or whatever, they won a majority of them. So they took that momentum and brought it into this season. Our leaders, our senior captains, Eliza and AB, have stepped up. They've led this team.

"Our juniors have played that great role model, ready to be that next supporting leader. It makes our job as coaches very easy, when players are stepping up and leading and teaching these underclassmen the ways of the program with that experience from last year and the previous years."

Those ways of consistency and signs of growth have been welcome over the years. But if that elusive D-III regional berth finally arrives, perhaps no sign would mean more on Rockefeller Road.

"It lit a fire under all of our butts," Wills said of that extra-time district final setback in 2022. "Everybody wants to come out. Everyone wants to be on a revenge tour. Everybody wants our get-backs. We want to go out, we want to play the best we can and we want to play for that win. That heartbreaking loss really took a toll on us, and we want to win.

"I think if we play like we know how to play, with the rate that we've been playing, we can take it pretty far. We've just got to come out and play with fire."