To win the district championship, the Saline girls water polo team needed to go through an imposing challenger.
A few weeks ago, Ann Arbor Huron defeated Saline to snap the Hornets’ 17-game winning streak.
Last Saturday, in the River Rats’ home pool, Saline avenged their loss and defeated Huron, 8-7, to win the district championship. By virtue of the win, the Hornets are a top seed at this weekend’s regional tournament at Saline High School.
Saline coach Katie Neidermire said she was proud of the way her team battled. The Hornets spent much of the first half playing catch-up and then, just when it looked like had some breathing room late in the game, the officials took away a Saline goal, making it a one-shot game.
“These girls played great. They battled through the adversity. They came back. They had a goal taken away from them and didn’t back down.
Cassie Andersson scored five goals to pace the Saline attack.
Maddy Murphy scored two goals and Sam Fitch scored a goal.
Goalie Katie Wagner was victimized on a couple of perfectly placed lob shots in the first half, but after six goals against in the first two quarters, she gave up just one in the final two.
To open scoring, Anderson took a pass from Fitch and fired shot from the right wing at 5:32. Huron tied it 20 seconds later with a goal from in close by Emily Marsh. At 4:10, Lyndsey Kinga scored from about 10 feet to give Huron a 2-1 lead. Anderson tied the game at two with a shot the skipped across the water and beat the goalie from the left wing, just 21 seconds later. It took Huron just 25 seconds to regain the lead. Marsh scored again, this time with a lob shot from the edge of the pool. Anderson tied the score at three with 1:49 to play in the quarter. She scored from the right wing, about 15 feet out.
The second quarter began with Huron’s Kingma scoring on an exclusion. Murphy tied it for Saline just 25 seconds later, firing a shot from in close on the right wing. Anderson gave the Hornets a 5-4 lead at 4:32 with a rocket to the top corner. Huron tied it with another lob goal from Marsh on the edge of the pool. The River Rats took the lead with 1:34 to play in the half when Elaina Baker got to a rebound and put it past Wagner. But Murphy tied for the Hornets with 16 seconds left in the quarter. She scored from the front of the net.
Neidermire said her team deserved a better fate after two periods.
“All the luck seemed to be going their way, with their lob shots going bar-in. But we kept fighting,” Neidermire said.
Goals were much harder to come by for both teams in the second half. But Saline found a way to take the lead. After a great kill on the exclusion, Saline turned the ball up the pool. Anderson passed cross pool to Murphy, who went cross pool to Fitch, who scored from the corner. Saline led 7-6 with 3:49 to play in the quarter. With 2:29 to play in the quarter, Anderson, with the shot clock getting close to zero and a girl in her face, fired a shot into the top corner for an 8-6 lead.
Huron got to within a goal with 1:06 to play in the quarter with a goal on an exclusion.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Hornets thought they added to their lead. Anderson scored on another skip shot. But Huron’s coach protested because Annika Olsen played after a third exclusion. Saline’s goal was erased and Huron was awarded a penalty shot, which Wagner deflected away.
“That was a coaching mistake,” said Neidermire. “When she got her third ejection I asked her and she thought she’d only had two. They officials at the table say they showed a red flag, but I didn’t see it. The important thing is the way we responded.”
The great Saline defense didn’t allow many shots in the final four minutes, but Wagner was there to make the saves when Huron developed chances.
Neidermire praised the team’s second half defensive effort.
“Whenever you’re tired, you’ve got to play smart. They were really smart. We made the right adjustments. We made sure we didn’t give them the good chances,” Neidermire said.
The Hornets now focus on the regional tournament.
“We’ve got the easiest route in the region and we’re home, so this should be an advantage for us. We’ve put ourselves in a great spot, now we’ve got to do it,” Neidermire said.
Captain Maddy Murphy agreed.
“Winning today gives us the easier game Friday, which if we win, sends us to states,” Murphy said.
The Hornets were happy to beat Huron, the team that snapped their winning streak two weeks prior. But Fitch was careful not to gloat about it.
“It was a big win. Of course, we appreciate the competition and we appreciate that they pushed us. It will only prepare us better when we go to, hopefully, states,” Fitch said.
Nobody had a bigger game than Anderson, who scored five of Saline’s eight goals.
“I felt really good, especially since last time we played I missed the cage a lot,” Anderson said. “It was a real confidence booster.”
Teams that try to key on Murphy, the team’s leading goal scorer, are going to leave other players open.
“Cassie did a great job stepping up and scoring goals,” Murphy said.
The Hornets play Mason at 4 p.m. Friday at Saline High School. (Note to visitors, with the regional track meet at Saline, you might be best served parking on the auditorium side of the building).
The winner will face the winner of the Grand Ledge-Skyline game. Okemos and Huron are the likely favorites from the other side of the bracket. If Saline makes the regional final, there’s a good chance they could face Huron again.