BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
Twitter: @MiSoccerNetwork and @LocalSportsFans
ANN ARBOR – This was a statement game and the word is now out that Ann Arbor Huron is a contender.
The River Rats put the rest of Division 1 on notice Thursday night with a resounding 3-0 victory over fellow state-ranked and previously unbeaten Saline in Southeastern Conference Red Division play.
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“We want to compete in every game. That’s our goal,” said Huron coach Luis Gomez-Dominguez, who grew up in the area and competed for fellow SEC-Red member Ann Arbor Pioneer. “I told the guys this was our most complete game we’ve had this season. I love our depth. We make substitutions and the level doesn’t drop. They compete and the quality is there for this group to compete with the highest teams in the state. So we’re keeping focus. We’re going to see these guys next Thursday at their place by the way the seeding is (playing out). So we know it’s going to be a brand-new game next week. We just have to enjoy it tonight and move on because we have Dearborn Fordson coming up. We have to keep going because there is plenty of soccer left to be played.”
Defensively, that seventh-ranked River Rats contained an array of Saline’s attackers, limiting space and conceding only three shots on target. Huron outshot the 10th-ranked Hornets 13-11, including 4-3 with shots on frame, and both teams collected three cornerkicks apiece. More importantly, Huron finished their opportunities and were consistently more dangerous around the net throughout the match.
The River Rats have not captured a league title in more than a decade, finishing anywhere from second to sixth in the eight-school division since 2013. Huron is very much in the thick of the conference race this year along with defending league champ Saline and Ann Arbor Pioneer and have already clinched a top-four finish. The River Rats want something greater than just a top-half finish in the SEC Red Division.
“It’s always a battle with Pioneer, Ann Arbor Skyline, Saline and us,” offered Gomez-Dominguez. “I think the group has what it takes as a group from the star players (on down the lineup) when it comes to our quality on the ball that we can compete with (all off the top teams in the SEC-Red). I think tonight was a big statement tonight from our group.”
Huron scored on its first shot on frame just over four minutes into the contest, as senior midfielder Esteban Mercado scooped up a deflection and blasted home a cannon of a shot from outside the box with 35:46 still to play in the first half. That ended up being the game-winner, but not the end of the fireworks the River Rats would deploy on the night.
Huron (7-3-1, 5-1-1) would convert again on its second shot on target with 10:58 remaining in the half. Just subbed into the contest, senior forward Michael Beskin-Diaz collected a short pass from junior Antonio Cassone in the middle of the park, turned and unleashed a left-footed laser that curled into the side webbing for a 2-0 lead.
Saline began to mount somewhat of an attack in the second half, but most of its shots were either wide or over the net, as the Hornets were frustrated time and time again.
Huron put the game on ice with 12:51 to play in the contest. Following an initial shot by Cassone, Beskin-Diaz was there to clean up the rebound and place his shot into the bank for the 3-0 lead.
Saline (6-1-3, 3-1-2) could never counter to get back in the game and settled for its first loss of the season.
Huron sophomore goalkeeper Matthew Pletcher, who spent last season with the Michigan Wolves MLS Next Academy side, continues to make a name for himself as one of the best netminders in the state in his age class. Although Pletcher only recorded three saves, he was quite active in taking command of the box, snaring crosses, restarts, flicks and throw-ins and keeping his team’s net clear of danger.
“He’s getting better and better,” noted Gomez-Dominguez. “He didn’t play for us last season. He was with the (Michigan) Wolves. But he’s very talented and we can only hope he spends three years with us. He makes a lot of great saves, and he was active again today (in the box).”
Huron has now outscored its opponents 26-7 at the season’s midpoint and the River Rats are picking up steam and confidence as the season moves along.
Saline, which finished 12-1-1 in the conference last season as the divisional champs and eventually reached the Division 1 regional finals, is still amongst the best teams in the state as well. The Hornets just had a difficult night solving the Rubix Cube of Huron’s defense and goaltending.
“I think we just get back to working hard in training,” offered first-year Saline coach Conner Williams, who graduated from Saline in 2016. “I thought my game-planning today was a bit off. A good portion of the responsibility is on me. But at the end of the day, you got to put balls in the back of the net. I think we did a decent job of creating chances – you just got to bury them. It wasn’t our day, but we’ll bounce back.”