BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
TROY – Utica Ford found a way to accomplish something that few soccer teams have been able to do against Troy Athens during the previous two months and 15-game win streak.
That’s to take a 1-0 lead on the Red Hawks.
The Falcons’ first-half advantage Thursday merely awakened a sleeping giant.
Athens outshot Utica Ford 13-7, including 6-1 with shots and frame, also held a 7-2 advantage on cornerkicks and possessed the ball for a large majority of the game. The end result for Athens was a dominating 3-1 victory over Ford in the Division 1 regional finals at Troy High School.
The win marks the 13th time since 1981 that the third-ranked Red Hawks were able to claim a regional championship and vaults them into the Division 1 Final Four Nov. 1 against No. 2-ranked Northville in a game that will is scheduled to play at Athens.
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“Our depth is pretty good. It seams we’ve had a different person kind of step every night,” said Athens 13th-year head coach Tood Heugh, who team had already defeated four schools in the tournament that spent at least one week this season ranked in the top 15 in Division 1. “Our ability to get better as the season has gone on and I know that sounds like ‘no duh’ but from where we started to the level we were playing at to where we are right now – that’s what you’re supposed to do. You have to continue to try to get a little bit better every day and any hurdle or obstacle comes your way you got to be ready for it.”
For Heugh, navigating a tough road to the state semifinals is never an easy task. Heugh was the head coach on Athens’ 2019 Division 1 state championship run, head coach in Rochester’s Division 1 state championship team in 2002 and was a starter on the Red Hawks’ Class A state championship team. He also played for Athens’ Final Four squad back in 1988 and coached the Red Hawks to the state runner-up trophy in 2016 and to the Final Four team in 2020.
In contrast, the Red Hawks carried a No. 1 ranking into the district finals in both 2013 and 2018 only to become upset victims both times – and I the 2018 squad lost 1-0 to Utica Ford despite holding a 24-7 shots edge in that contest.
“We talked about not to give up the first goal and here we are again down 1-0,” said Heugh, whose team yielded an early goal to Rochester Adams in the regional semifinals. “We fought back and scored right (after the Ford goal). Adriano (Shauya) had a great goal – a great highlight-reel goal. We kind of readjusted at halftime and talked a little bit about our composure and our depth. I thought that maybe they might have started to tire a little bit and we might be starting to get fresher (legs) a little bit. We kept the ball and created a few more chances.
“It’s never easy in the state tournament,” added Heugh. “We had to beat four OAA Red (Division) opponents to get here.”
The Falcons (13-8-1) scored their only goal on its first shot. After a counterattack, a Ford player was taken down just outside the penalty box on the left side. Senior center back Spencer Krause was pushed up to take the set piece and his bending free kick around the defensive wall sailed inside the left post with 17:45 remaining in the first half.
Utica Ford (13-8-1) would never connect on another shot on goal the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, Athens, which already out-possessed the Falcons up until the point of the Ford goal, began to mount even more pressure on the Falcons’ side of the field. That resulted in the game-tying goal with 12:18 to go in the first half on brilliant plays by sophomore Daniel Kadiu and senior Adriano Shauya.
Dribbling the ball down the right sideline, Kadiu paused, took a quick touch to deke a defender and laced a bending cross into the middle of the box where Shauya volleyed it just under the crossbar from six yards in front of the goal.
Athens pushed the lead to 2-1 with 34:21 to go when senior Griffin LeBay’s through ball was corralled by junior Marc Delikat and Delikat blasted one home from 15 yards out for what proved to be the game-winner.
The Red Hawks were not done, as Kadiu set up junior Miguel Ramirez with a breakaway goal midway through the second half to cap the scoring.
“These boys, it doesn’t matter who it is, there’s no superstars and its all love. We’re friends off the field and on the field. We love each other – every single person in that locker room loves each other,” noted Shauya about his team’s chemistry, 15-game win streak and run to the Final Four. “It’s not about who scored it’s about love from our hearts.”
As Athens has done during its 15-game win streak, the Red Hawks did wear the Falcons down with its waves of players and by going deep down the bench. The Red Hawks didn’t allow Ford much a chance in the second half until the last five minutes.
Trailing by two goals, the Falcons did push up extra attackers down the stretch but could not strike a shot on goal. Athens senior goalkeeper Adam Ethridge, who has committed to NCAA Division I Colgate University, was able to leap high to either snare or punch crosses out of harm’s way and recorded his team’s 15th straight win between the pipes and 18th victory overall.
Utica Ford, which previously captured regional titles back in 1985 and 2012 and lost in the regional finals in 2014, has played much better during the final month of the season. The Falcons were slowed by injuries, inconsistency and trying to mold in some former MLS Next Academy players into their lineup.
Ford was 7-0-1 in its previous eight games entering the regional finals with a 24-8 scoring edge and three shutouts. For the season, the Falcons outscored its opposition 54-27 with six clean sheets.
During its dominating win streak, Athens (18-3-2) has outscored the opposition 59-7 with 10 shutouts and 71-15 with 12 shutouts over the course of 21 games – a team 0.72 goals-against-average. The Red Hawks will face an eerily red-hot opponent in second-ranked Northville, which is on a six-game win streak and has won 14 of its last 15 games except a 1-0 loss to fellow KLAA West Division and Division 1 Final Four entrée Brighton on Oct. 3. The Mustangs (19-2-1) captured the KLAA West Division, KLAA Tournament, district and regional trophies and are in the state semifinals for the second time in three years.
Northville has been ranked well inside the top 15 all season, has outscored the opposition 76-17 with 10 shutouts – a 0.78 team goals-against-average – and has outscored its postseason opponents 17-4 with one clean sheet. The Mustangs’ sole losses are to league rival Brighton (2-1 and 1-0) and the Bulldogs are on the other half of the bracket and face Rockford in the other D-1 state semifinals clash.
Getting to the Final Four is a long-standing tradition at Athens, where many relatives and siblings in the past have enjoyed a special run much like the 2023 Red Hawks have done this fall.
“I think they do (understand the magnitude). We talk about it a lot as a team and the next group wants to leave their mark,” said Heugh on reaching the Final Four for the 13th time, third time in five years and fourth time in eight seasons. “We talked a little bit (Wednesday) and had a mini film session. Brody Fahnestock’s sister was on our on 2021 state finalist team; Charlie Ciak’s sister was on that team and his brother was on our 2019 state championship team; Luke DiGiovanni’s brother was on our ’19 state championship team. Griffin LeBay’s brother scored a penalty kick on our 2020 regional (championship) team. It’s a family-type thing. The next group of players that comes in (and) is looking forward to trying to do the group in front of them did or go further than the group in front of them did. We haven’t won a district in (three) years but the same time I was telling the kids its our third regional title in five years. That’s pretty special things for these kids and our program.”
Troy Athens’ appearances in the Final Four:
2023: To be determined
2020: Lost to Traverse City West 2-1 in the Division 1 state semifinals
2019: Defeated Traverse City West 4-1 in Division 1 state championship game
2016: Lost to East Kentwood 1-0 in a shootout in the Division 1 state championship game
1998: Lost to Novi 2-0 in the Division 1 state semifinals
1997: Defeated Plymouth Salem 2-1 in the Division 1 state championship game
1995: Lost to Plymouth Salem 5-2 in the Class A state semifinals
1989: Defeated Plymouth Salem 1-0 in the Class A state championship game
1988: Lost to Birmingham Brother Rice 2-0 in the Class A state semifinals
1986: Lost to Livonia Stevenson 2-1 in the Class A state championship game
1984: Defeated Livonia Stevenson 3-2 in the Class A state championship game
1983: Defeated Livonia Stevenson 3-0 in the Class A state championship game
1981: Defeated Livonia Stevenson 2-1 in the Michigan Suburban Coaches Association Class A-B state championship game
Note: The Michigan Suburban Coaches Association held state tournaments from 1975-1981 before the MHSAA adopted boys soccer as a sanctioned sport in the summer of 1982.