DEXTER - After 100 minutes of brilliant play in the district championship game, the Saline soccer team lost a heartbreaking game to Pioneer in a shootout.
The teams, who split their two matches in the regular season, were tied at 2 after 80 minutes of play. Two 10-minute periods couldn’t break the deadlock. The Pioneers outscored Saline 4-2 in the shootout to take the district trophy.
The loss was tough to swallow - particularly since the Hornets held leads of 1-0 and 2-1. They were less than five minutes away from winning when Pioneer scored the tying goal in the second half.
“This one hurts, because they put forth so much effort. They played well and so did we. It could have gone either way,” said Saline coach Ryan Williams. “I'm just really honored to be their coach. I love these guys.”
The Pioneers seemed to be controlling the game early, driving the play toward’s the Saline goal with speed and a willingness to use the size advantage to their benefit. But for all Pioneer’s pressure, the Hornet defense kept the Pioneers from generating dangerous chances. Still, when the Hornets scored first, it was like the game was struck by a bolt of lightning.
Zeke Gray passed the ball up the left wing to Brayden Stavros, who was suddenly running in on the goalie, one-on-one. As the Pioneer goalie came out to challenge, Stavros ripped the ball past him into the cage.
“Something we thought we could do well in this game was simply play it through the middle and quickly switching. Pioneer defends so well together. They travel in packs. We knew space would be open on the opposite side. We played it into Zeke. He turned and played a great ball to Brayden, who showed composure and the finish was awesome,” Williams said.
That goal seemed to reset the playing field, which had been tilted toward Saline’s goal much of the first half.
“To go up 1-0 in the first half was huge. I still didn't think we'd played our best,” Williams said.
The Hornets knew the Pioneers were going to come out determined to score early in the second half. Before the game, Saline knew it wanted to avoid giving the Pioneers many set pieces, because of their size and skill. The Hornets, for the most part, avoided them in the first half. But early in the second half, Saline ran into trouble. The Pioneers were awarded three corners in the span of just a couple minutes. On the third one, Austin Jacobs headed the ball past Saline keeper Sam Herner.
“It’s hard to defend that many, back-to-back-to-back,” Williams said.
Right after that goal, there was another. This time, only a great stop by Herner prevented Pioneer from taking the lead.
A lesser team might have folded to that pressure, but the Hornets bounced back. Freshman Dominic Rossi led the charge for Saline. He created one chance with an aggressive sprint up the right-wing, and centered the ball to a teammate who headed the ball just wide. Moments later, Rossi was at it again. This time, he curled in from the sideline into the center and, surrounded by Pioneers, managed to fire a hard shot that was labeled for a spot just inside the goalpost. The Pioneer keeper made a diving stop to preserve the tie. But Saline struck gold on the ensuing corner kick. Saline got a perfect play-in and Jayden Pickett went way up in the air to get his head on the ball and place it into the corner of the goal. Pickett was mobbed by his teammates as they celebrated what they hoped would be the game-winning goal.
“That was a great goal. We finally executed one to perfection. It was such a good cross,” Williams said.
But with 4:41 left, John Yerkes got loose at the side of the Saline goal and scored past a helpless Herner.
“Marking has kind of hurt us throughout the season on the back post. Unfortunately, it did there,” Williams said.
Saline had its chances. With 40 seconds left, Hayden Larance just missed the far right corner on a free kick with 40. Late in the second overtime, Dominic Rossi and Noel Sompa caused a flurry of activity in the Pioneer crease that forced a diving stop by the Pioneer keeper.
After two overtimes, the game went to a shootout. Each team selected five players to shoot.
Pioneer scored on their first shot. Stavros answered with a goal for Saline. Pioneer scored on their second shot. Eric Kent replied with a goal for Saline.
But from there, the Pioneers added two more goals and the Hornets were blanked.
“It gets to penalties and anything can happen. They have a great goalie and so do we. I'd put the same five kids out there. I have all the confidence in the world in them,” Williams said.
Williams credited Pioneer for a great game.
“They are a great team. I can see them making it far,” Williams said. Last year, Saline lost to Skyline in the district championship. Skyline went on to win the state championship.
It was a tough loss for a Saline team that won the SEC Red for the second straight year. But Williams said the team should hold their heads high.
“These guys put forth the best effort - 100 minutes, and you couldn't take a playoff in this game. That was such a great soccer game. These kids have nothing to hang their heads about.
They played for each other, start-to-finish. I absolutely love these guys and I am so proud that I am their coach,” Williams said.