BY AARON SNYDER
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
FLATWOODS Buttered? Caramel? Kettle?
Russell boys soccer coach Randy Vanover didn’t specify how his players prefer their popcorn, but he did announce during a postgame huddle that it was time to get it ready.
If Monday’s 63rd District Tournament opener was the large tub moviegoers purchase, Vanover and the Red Devils are clamoring for a refill. After a 5-1 defeat of Ashland, they’ll move on to face Boyd County in the district title tilt on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Russell- Mc-Dowell Inter-medi-ate.
Nolan Sabotchick was Mr. Hollywood as he posed for a celebratory photo shoot after one of his three goals. Max Cantrell served as the paparazzi. Cantrell and Nathan Perry assisted Sabotchick, who ran his season total to 31 tallies.
Sabotchick went solo to complete his hat trick. He burned the back of the net with a 30-yard bullet.
“That’s the best goal I’ve ever seen him make,” Vanover said. “He’s crafty.”
Sabotchick wowed the vibrant crowd with his nifty footwork in front of the bleachers, too.
Perry, Sabotchick’s teammate and neighbor, is never surprised at what No. 19 can accomplish. They’ve played together since age 6.
Perry posted a goal, himself, too, on Monday to extend the lead to 5-1 in the 67th minute. He accepted a pass from Karim Abul Khoudoud and promptly put in his third high school goal — and second of this particular season, his junior campaign.
“Goals, assists, they’re all the same to me as long as we get the win,” Perry said.
Vanover fought jitters all day long, partly because Ashland handed the Red Devils a 2-1 loss on Sept. 11. Russell retaliated with a 5-2 victory in the second meeting on Sept. 20, but Vanover is keenly aware that elimination games can be unpredictable.
“I wanted them up for this game, because I knew we’d be up for Wednesday,” Vanover said of a potential championship matchup with Boyd County, which is now a reality. “I’ve been on the other side too many times. I knew they were capable of beating us. They had beaten us.”
Vanover said the nerves subsided when the opening kick occurred. Rudy Jaeger helped stave off anxiety, too, when he broke the ice just 10 minutes into the match.
Vanover had just rewarded the German foreign- exchange student by giving him his first start.
“I’m happy for him,” said the coach. “He’s been really showing a lot in practice.”
Two of Sabotchick’s goals came in the first half.
He notched his solo shot in the 61st minute, just 36 seconds after Ashland cracked the scoring column.
Freshman Santiago Gutierrez hooked up with charging sophomore Ben Acuff on a spot-on cross pass. Acuff found a crease and scored to trim the margin to 3-1.
Ashland coach Ed Belville said Ashland has a bright future. Gutierrez and Acuff are just two youthful reasons why.
“Santi’s just a freshman, and he’s been injured the past few weeks,” Belville said. “That was a fantastic cross he had. We have another freshman, Parker Miller, and he’s just a workhorse. Calyx Holmes is another fantastic player … “… Our keeper,” he continued, referring to Matthew Jimison. “A lot of the younger ones have a bright future.”
Despite enduring a 3-161 season, the Tomcats ultimately made their coach proud.
“From the time back in August whenever we were struggling to now, the maturity level raised a whole lot,” Belville said. “They grew as a team, grew as people. I couldn’t ask for a better group of young men.”
Russell (8-8-1) will encounter Boyd County for the third time in five weeks. The Lions won the previous two clashes, 6-2 and 4-2.
Vanover was Lions head coach Logan Price’s assistant this time last year, when Russell toppled Boyd County for the district crown.
He initially declined, while smiling, to offer playful trash talk or anything of the sort, but the Dallas Cowboys fan did stick with one message, inspired by former receiver Terrell Owens.
“Get your popcorn ready,” he said, moments before unleashing a hearty “wooooo!” as he retreated to Russell’s bench.