Zeke Gray scored the game’s only goal on a beautiful run and Sam Herner made a spectacular late stop to preserve the victory as Saline advanced in the MHSAA district tournament at Dexter Wednesday. Saline and Pioneer will battle for the district trophy at 5 p.m., Friday, at Dexter’s Al Ritt Stadium.
On Wednesday, Saline came away with a 1-0 victory over Dexter, a team with just two losses on the season. In August the teams battled to a scoreless draw. So, the Hornets were counting on a tight game.
“That is a very good team we just beat. I’m proud of this team,” coach Ryan Williams said after the game.
The Dreadnaughts put pressure on the Hornets for the first five minutes of the game and generated a dangerous scoring chance on a cross from the corner that was deflected over an open net. Williams said the Hornets might have been surprised by the speed of the Dreadnaughts.
“Our guys understood they had to move the ball much quicker and the rest of the half was very good,” Williams said.
Indeed. A dangerous rush by Eric Kent seemed to turn the momentum around. Saline carried the ball through midfield with speed and authority.
“We thought the midfield battle - in particular the center mids - would control the game and dictate the pace,” Williams said. “I love our three guys in the middle with Noel Sompa, Zeke Gray and Dominic Rossi.”
In particular, Williams said, Rossi had an outstanding match.
“He was everywhere, attacking the space and opening the game for teammates,” Williams said.
A little more than midway through the first half, Gray scored the game’s only goal. He started around midfield in the center, and then turned to the right side, turning on the jets to create space and then beat the goalie with a low shot.
“There was probably only one kid on the field who could score that goal. His ability to drive into space, take it at pace, keep the ball on his foot and then finish with a picture-perfect finish in the bottom corner - not many people can do that,” Williams said. “Big players come up in the big moment. I was very proud of him.”
The goal staggered the Dreadnaughts and Saline quickly generated a couple more chances but could not cash in.
Saline carried the lead into half time.
In the second half, the Dreadnaughts fought back and it was a much more evenly matched contest. Still, the Saline defense was stingy. Finally, with a little more than 14 minutes to play, the Dreadnaughts got their chance. Suddenly a Dreadnaught was streaking in from the right wing and closing in. From about 10-yards out, he fired a shot that seemed destined for the low corner by the near post. But Saline goalie Sam Herner reacted perfectly, diving to his left and batting the ball away with his hands.
“What can you say?. Sam. Holy cow. You need those kinds of saves in the playoffs. I was very proud of him,” Williams said.
The Dreadnaughts battled until the end.
With 30 seconds left, they had a corner kick that was headed away by Hayden Larance.
Williams said Larance had a great game.
“He performed very well. More than that, he was vocal. He helped organize our guys on the field. That’s what we need from our senior leaders,” Williams said.
Another key contributor to the victory was Zack Mitzel, who shut down Dexter’s leading scorer.
“Zack did a great job man-marking their guy, who’d scored more than 20 goals this season,” Williams said.
Now the Hornets have a big test with Pioneer.
The SEC Red champion Hornets split their season series with Pioneer, winning 1-0 at home and losing 2-0 at Pioneer.
Williams expects a hard-fought contest.
“It’s going to be an absolutely great district final,” Williams said.
For Saline to win, they need to play foul-free soccer.
“We have to be smart about not giving up fouls. They have big kids and they are good in the air. They used that to score to goals on set pieces at Pioneer,” Williams said. “If we limit their set pieces, we should have a good chance.”