As early season tests go, Saline’s varsity soccer contest against Skyline was a mid-term exam on the first day of school.
And the Hornets passed with flying colors – defeating their SEC Red rivals, 2-1, to take an early hold on first place in the conference.
Zeke Gray and Ryan Nichols scored for Saline while Quinn Fox made several tough stops in goal before Skyline broke his shut out in the final minute of play.
Saline wants to win the SEC Red – and Skyline is the two-time defending SEC champs. Last year, Skyline defeated Saline, 3-0, at Hornet Stadium.
“We used that as motivation,” Saline coach Ryan Williams said. “We knew this was a game that could get us at the top of the table. Earlier we talked about how we need to work as a team and I thought all 23 guys did that from start to finish so I’m very proud of them. It’s one step closer to our goal – that’s to win our conference and keep getting better every day.”
Both teams pressed early, drawing corners which they failed to capitalize on. Saline had two glorious scoring chances in the first half. Logan Dejanovich’s strike from just outside the right side of the box sailed high and wide. Mitch Kalitta, taking a free kick a yard outside the box, watched his shot go two feet over the bar.
Midway through the half Skyline seemed to slow the pace, electing to have their defense and goalie play catch deep in Eagle territory.
But Saline disrupted their game. Charlie Rogers played a ball up the middle. Zeke Gray beat his man to the ball and then kept the charging goalie from freezing the ball. Gray caught up to the ball and turned and fired it past the helplessly out-of-position goalie and into a yawning cage.
Saline led 1-0.
“They want to pull guys out of our shape. Defensively, we were disciplined. We knew that if they played with the ball in the back, if we shifted accordingly as a team, that we could jump it eventually. It was great team defense and a great goal by Zeke, obviously. But it all started with all guys behind the ball and working together,” Williams said. “Zeke sees things that other kids don’t. He reads the game incredibly well. He snuck in and won that ball. Their keeper was out of position and if there’s any kid on the team that can make that shot, it’s (Zeke).”
Saline led 1-0 at halftime. Early in the second, Saline scored again.
The Hornets played it up the right side and then Rogers centered to a speeding Nichols in the middle. Nichols fired a rocket up and over the goalie and rattled the cage. Saline led 2-0.
“We were patient. If we can possess, eventually gaps will open up. We connected a couple passes prior to that. We shifted the white shirts and Ryan found the window. It was a great ball and a composed finish from a senior that I expect,” Williams said.
Late in the game, Skyline threw caution to the win and went on the attack. But goalie Quinn Fox and the Saline defense withstood the barrage.
“We haven’t given up many goals and they don’t get all the credit, because they’re not flashy. But they do it incredibly well. Quinn in net had one heck of a game. It was one of his best performances. They definitely started pressing at the end and Quinn stood strong,” Williams said. “Our backs, Devin DeVries, Nate Learman and Ryan Grill, are starting to talk a bit more. They’ve played together forever and know how each other play. They’re having fun back there.”
Fox punched away several corner kicks and made a great diving stop.
Saline nearly made it 3-0 when Eric Kent took a pass at high speed, powered past the keeper and touched a ball headed for the corner of the goal. Somehow, the Skyline defender got back in time to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
Skyline finally scored with about one minute left in the game.
Gabe Kellman broke through and fired a shot. Fox dove to his right to make a splendid save. But Kellman got to the rebound and put it past the sprawling goalie.
It was a huge win – but it’s only one win. Saline must now refocus for another test.
“It doesn’t get any easier. We play Pioneer on Thursday. Every game in our conference is tough,” Williams said.
The Saline Post 3 Stars
- Quinn Fox – Saline’s goalie made several great saves to help the Hornets earn a huge win against the SEC Red rival. Coach Ryan Williams called it one of his best games as a Hornet.
- Ryan Nichols – Scored what proved to be the game-winner with a sniper’s shot over the keeper.
- Zeke Gray – As a sophomore, Gray showed the ability to play with power and finesse. As a junior, that combination is now longer a surprise. Gray just powered through the Skyline defender and goalie on Saline’s first goal. Honorable mention must go to Ryan Grill, who broke up several plays on defense, and Charlie Rogers, who was excellent at mid-field and played a key role in both Saline goals.