Union Grove senior forward Clay Gwaltney had just four games under his belt after returning from a hamstring injury and was battling a virus Friday night, according Wolverines coach Mark Matthews. He'd tallied four goals since his return, but was still rounding into form.
Friday night Gwaltney appeared to take a big step forward. He was confident in the Wolverines attack, and completed a hat-trick with a goal in the 49th minute to lead Union Grove to a 5-0 win over Woodland in a non-area game.
"He's been held up, hasn't had his speed most of the season," Matthews said. "He's been going through therapy and missed a lot of practice. He's probably still not fully in form yet, to be honest. He's just now getting back into shape."
Gwaltney looked in fine form from the start, finishing a feed from Justin Knowles to give Union Grove (12-3, 5-1 Area 2-AAAAA) a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute. Ten minutes later, he headed a cornerkick past Woodland goalkeeper Jamie White (15 saves).
Then it was time to start thinking about one more.
"Once you get two (goals), you automatically want the third," Gwaltney said. "It's just that mentality."
Gwaltney's impressive hat-trick came thanks to an extraordinary pass from Taylor White. Sitting back in Union Grove's defense, White sent a strong pass that found an open seam in Woodland's defense. Gwaltney happened to be waiting in perfect position.
Gwaltney juked the charging goalkeeper, leaving an open net. Union Grove went up 3-0, seizing control of the game to win its fifth straight and seventh of its last eight.
"When our team comes out and plays, we can out-play pretty much any team in the state," Gwaltney said. "As long as we come out to play, then we're set."
Behind its crisp and disciplined offense, Union Grove controlled possession and sustained its attack. The Wolverines out-shot Woodland (8-5-2, 4-2 Area 4-AAA), 30-4, and had eight cornerkick opportunities.
Senior Derrick Odhiambo added goals in the 72nd and 75th minutes for Union Grove.
"That was probably the first time that we've strung 80 minutes together," Matthews said. "They play like that in spells, but I thought they played probably the best they have all season."
After spring break, the season resumes with an arduous flourish. Games against Perry (5-3-1), No. 4 Heritage (10-2-1) and area and county rival Luella (8-3) remain to test the Wolverines.
But that's by design. Union Grove hasn't advanced beyond the first round of the state tournament four of the past five seasons. Matthews hopes the challenging schedule can remedy that.
"I usually try to get us ready," Matthews said. "We've always run across somebody that's either really, really good or have an amazing day or something. We never quite string it together, but I think we will this year."
Union Grove girls 5, Eagle's Landing 0
Kristyn Thacker scored twice to lead the Lady Wolverines to a non-area win and their fifth in a row.
Ashley Nagy scored a goal and assisted on another for Union Grove (12-2-1, 5-1 Area 2-AAAAA), which swept the season series with the Lady Golden Eagles (9-5, 5-1 Area 4-AAA), who has now lost three of their last four.
Danielle Fletcher added a goal for Union Grove.