Madison players and coaches celebrate Ashleigh Bechtel's game-winning overtime goal against Chagrin Falls in the Division II state semifinals earlier this week at Pat Catan Stadium in Strongsville.

Ashleigh Bechtel’s game-winning goal had barely come to rest before the green-and-white clad crowd spilled out of the bleachers at Strongsville’s Pat Catan Stadium.

Bechtel’s overtime goal Tuesday had lifted Madison to a 1-0 win over Chagrin Falls in the state semifinals, sending the second-ranked Rams into Saturday’s Division II championship match against top-ranked Kettering Alter at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.

As Madison athletic director Doug Rickert soaked up the atmosphere during the impromptu post-game celebration on the frosty November evening, what struck him was the number of smiling faces he encountered.

“What stood out for me is just how people were happy,” Rickert said from his office Thursday afternoon. “They forgot about their jobs and their problems and everything else and they shared in the joy of that moment.

“That is the greatest thing about all of this. It has brought the Madison community together again," Rickert said.

The Rams have taken their fans for a thrill ride during the past couple of weeks, beginning with a 4-3 district final win over Richland County rival Ontario on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late-October at Lexington High School.

Regional tournament victories over Rocky River and Oak Harbor followed — and with each win, the crowds began to swell.

“There is a buzz we haven’t felt around here in a while,” said Rickert, a Madison graduate who has coached at his alma mater in one capacity or another for the past 27 years. “This is the greatest thing that has happened to our school and our community in a long, long time.

“It means a lot to the people here to have something to believe in.”

The Rams boast a talent-rich roster highlighted by junior Taylor Huff, a University of Tennessee recruit, and the daughter of coach Zac Huff.

But true to the community’s blue-collar identity, it was an unheralded junior who scored the most meaningful goal in program history. Bechtel had just five career goals before sending the game-winner against Chagrin Falls.

“She deserved that so much because she works so hard on and off the field,” Taylor Huff said of her classmate. “She puts 100 percent in day-in and day-out and that’s just a reward for her.”

The Rams have adopted a slogan along the tournament trail, breaking huddles by chanting in unison, "Tough as nails." That approach has served Madison well throughout the postseason.

“We’re mentally strong and that’s so important,” Bechtel said. “You have to be mentally strong to win games at this level.”

That work ethic extends beyond the pitch.

“This team has a cumulative 3.6 grade point average and they really are a likable bunch,” Rickert said. “In all my years of coaching, I’ve found that you don’t have good teams unless you have good parents and good grandparents. This group of kids has great parents.”

Of course, it helps to have an entire community on your side as well.

“You can look around at some of the faces that don’t know soccer, don’t come to soccer, but they’re Ram fans and they’re here,” said Zac Huff, who graduated from Madison in the mid-1990s. “It brings out the community and Saturday is going to be even better.”

Regardless of what happens Saturday, the memories of the last few weeks will last a lifetime.

“When Ashleigh Bechtel comes to her 50th class reunion, the people there will say, ‘There’s the girl who sent us to the state championship game,’ ” Rickert said. “High school sports have a way of uniting people.

“People in our community are happy. The kids and teachers at our school are happy. We wish that this would never end.”

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I have covered high school sports in Richland County since 2000. Email him at curt@richlandsource.com or follow him on Twitter: Follow @curtjconrad on twitter.

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