Triple trouble

When Austin Welch got his foot on the ball in the Great Crossing attacking third Tuesday night, it was usually bad news for Franklin County. Welch scored three consecutive goals and assisted another as GC stormed back for a 4-1 victory in the 41st District semifinals.

Great Crossing boys' soccer senior Austin Welch called his shots Tuesday night.

“Before the game I asked Austin, 'Hey man, how many goals you gonna have tonight?' He said, 'I think I'm feeling a hat trick,' and that's how many he had in the first half,” GC coach Nick Maxwell related.

Not merely confident, Welch proved prophetic with that natural hat trick in the first half of a 4-1 victory over Franklin County on home turf in the 41st District semifinals.

Welch, who has played for developmental soccer academies in Lexington, Columbus and Cincinnati but chose to wear the Warhawks' colors this season, has made his mark mostly as a creator for his teammates.

He deflected the credit right back to his coach for the sudden personal highlight film.

“He told me to go back out wide, come inside more, so just taking his advice worked out,” Welch said. “My first look is always to pass the ball. I'm always looking to find teammates in open space and get them shots. Today it just worked out where shots were open for me.”

Welch also set up a goal by his younger brother, sophomore Preston, running his totals to five goals and five assists on the campaign. The final tally was Preston's team-high seventh.

“I look for him first,” Austin added.

Great Crossing (6-2-1) successfully sealed a bid in the 11th Region tournament for the second straight year. The Warhawks will try to make it back-to-back district titles at 8:30 p.m. Thursday when they host Frankfort.

Both last year's title game and a regular-season rematch at FHS last week went to GC in penalty kick tiebreakers.

The Welch brothers' explosiveness is a calling card of this year's new-look Warhawks, who are peaking with their fourth straight victory.

“Austin, with the caliber of player that he is, is a great addition to the team and has been all season,” Maxwell said. “Tonight it really felt like an actual team that's connected and doing what we want them to do, and that's really the most important thing as we hit this postseason stretch.”

As was the case in Saturday's regular-season finale with Western Hills, however, GC spotted its rival a 1-0 lead.

Cade Terry's boot from just inside the midfield stripe eluded the entire Warhawks defense and sailed over goalkeeper Connor Dias' head into the net with 20:03 remaining in the first half.

“We still pressured the goal the whole time, and their goal was a chip ball from midfield,” Maxwell said. “Connor definitely could have done better with positioning and movement, but the reality is we can't let that (shot) happen."

Welch's three-pronged response made it a completely different game by intermission.

Rodolfo Flores set up the equalizer, a blast off the fingertips of leaping Franklin County keeper Brendan Hack, with 14:43 left.

Zach Hamner's right-to-left cross fueled a go-ahead rocket from Welch with 5:23 remaining. There was 1:18 on the clock when Preston Welch set up big brother's third blast.

Slow starts are somewhat a microcosm of Great Crossing's season. The Warhawks didn't even play their second match until Sept. 26.

“I don't want to say it hurt us, but it was hard to get going with the two-week quarantine,” the elder Welch said. “Every team had a leg up on us, but we're finally hitting our stride. The team's coming together. We're finally getting everyone where they want to be, and it's all working out. This game I think was our best game yet.”

Austin Welch picked up a loose ball off the foot of a Franklin County (0-6-3) defender and found Preston Welch ahead of the pack for the sole strike of the second half with 15:43 to go.

Great Crossing mounted consistent pressure and saw numerous opportunities to stretch the final margin, including a shot off the crossbar by Flores and two others by Preston Welch that pinged the post. The Flyers' defensive hustle also broke up two golden opportunities by Tristan Morrin.

“It was kind of all over the place,” Maxwell said. “The important thing is we finished the goals that we needed to and walk away to not only move onto region next week but a battle in front of us with Frankfort again.”

Dias delivered a handful of second-half saves to stymie any Franklin County comeback aspirations.

He's currently the only healthy goalkeeper with experience on the Warhawks' roster after Michael Moeller suffered a head injury in last week's win over Frankfort.

“Little positioning mistakes are an easy fix and an easy conversation for us as coaches. He's making the saves he should,” Maxwell said of Dias. “He's playing within himself, making better decisions when he has to distribute. We're lucky to have a keeper who is that athletic as our backup.”

Great Crossing hopes having Frankfort on its home turf – far different than the well-work grass pitch on the Panthers' field – will be worth a goal or two in the championship game.

The Warhawks won 8-2 last fall in the Panthers' only previous visit. Frankfort edged Western Hills, 2-1, in the other semifinal.

“I'm looking forward to it for sure. It's going to be a tough game. I hope it doesn't get to (penalty kicks),” Austin Welch said. “Better turf, better field, got the home fans with us, so I think it's going to be a better game. The whole team's looking forward to it.”

GC hopes to extend its current winning streak and earn a valuable No. 1 seed at regions, where it was runner-up to eventual state champion Henry Clay a year ago.

“We had our ups and downs this season. I think we can be real with that,” Maxwell said. “The season was kind of broken up, up and down. Other teams have had that struggle too, so we can't keep hanging on to that. The important thing is we've put together four matches. Now we've got to put together a fifth and see what regions holds for us.”

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