BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
GRAND LEDGE, Mich. – Something had to give.
Senior Manny Aigbedo broke open a close-knit contest with a rebound goal – just his fifth of the season – with 7:01 left in the first overtime session, and third-ranked Troy Athens held on for a dramatic 2-1 victory over 14th-ranked Brighton in the Division 1 state finals Saturday night at Grand Ledge High School.
Following a series of four shots in traffic, Aigbedo booted home the loose ball during a wild goal-mouth scrum to lift the Red Hawks to its second title in five seasons. It came seconds after teammate JP Hupman’s close-range shot was blocked by a Brighton defender and Aigbedo came through with the biggest goal of his life with 7:01 left in the first of two full 10-minute overtime periods.
“I didn’t know honestly that I scored. It was just a scramble with all us trying to get the second goal,” described Aigbedo of the game-winning goal. I just got a knee to it. I got anything I could on it. I didn’t have enough time to get a volley, I just got something on it and it went in. I didn’t even know I scored.”
Everyone else in attendance knew there was movement on the east end of the field, especially as the Athens players threw the arms up into the air in wild celebration.
The overtime periods nearly didn’t take place and needed some late-game heroics to force the extra periods.
Athens (20-3-2) had to tie it up with just 1:56 remaining in the second half after falling behind with less than 10 minutes to play.
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Brighton (19-4-2) was making its second state title appearance and first in 25 years. The Bulldogs finally broke the stalemate with 9:02 remaining in regulation when senior Colin Robertson’s banged home a rebound during a series of shots. Juniors Devlin McGinnis and Owen Buckley had shots turned aside by Athens senior goalkeeper Adam Ethridge but Robertson – who never played high school soccer until this year – pounced on the loose ball near the top of the box and scored his ninth goal of the campaign.
Brighton’s stingy defense – which claimed four postseason shutouts and outscored its seven postseason opponents 14-4 with – withstood the pressure until the waning moments of regulation when the Red Hawks finally netted the equalizer. Senior outside back Brody Fahnestock uncorked a 35-yard shot that sailed high and eluded senior goalkeeper Charlie Burchfield and into the left corner of the goal to tie the game at 1-1.
That game-tying goal simply deflated the Bulldogs and Athens dominated both overtimes with a combined 10-1 shots edge including 8-0 with shots on frame. The Red Hawks even held a 3-0 advantage on cornerkicks in the extra sessions and frustrated the Bulldogs down the stretch after taking the lead.
“We showed a lot of resiliency and kept trying to get that game-tying goal,” said Athens coach Todd Heugh, who has now won three combined state championships as a coach between Troy Athens and Rochester. “I think this group, it didn’t really matter who scored it. We just kept trying to tie that game and Brody took that long shot and it went in. Remember, he scored the game-winner against Northville in the semifinal in a similar way and he came through with another goal like that tonight. Then in overtime, we just kept attacking their goal and Manny was able to knock it in during that scramble (of players). In that situation, it doesn’t have to be pretty. Someone just has to find a way to score.”
After being able to score first in a lot of games this season, Athens had to battle back from a deficit for the fourth time in its last five games during the state tournament run. The Red Hawks outscored the opposition 21-9 during its seven postseason games and capped the season with a 17-game win streak and a 76-18 scoring edge with 12 shutouts in 25 games.
Watching Athens bring its trademark waves of players, depth and relentless work rate and pace, Brighton coach Mark Howell knew that the Red Hawks would come after his team, especially after the Bulldogs took the 1-0 lead late in the second half.
“They have a great coach and I knew they would be as good as advertised,” said Howell. “We felt we were really prepared for the game. Honestly, it was just a battle and when they got that game-tying goal it took the wind out of our sails at the end. We knew overtime was going to be an uphill battle and (we would) try to climb back into it momentum-wise. That being (said this was) our first trip here (with this group) in terms of experience on the big stage. It didn’t fall the way we wanted it to.”
Athens is an unusual team without a superstar but has tremendous balance and depth. More often than not the Red Hawks wore down opponents after regularly being able to play 17-18 players a game, including in the state tournament run against six teams that spent at least one week in the top 15 of the state rankings.
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“I think some of these guys growing up here in Troy their goal is just to make the Athens varsity,” beamed Heugh. “I know some of them will go on to play in college but for others playing varsity is the goal. And to have a group like this come in and play so well together and be able to win a state championship is incredible. We might not always play the prettiest brand of soccer at Athens, but it worked for us this season.”
Aigbedo said that the state championship run will help future generations of players to don the Red Hawks jersey succeed on the pitch and carry on the legacy of a great program that has won legions of league, district, regional and state championships over its program’s 43-year history.
“This game today, this win today will inspire the players to come next to Athens soccer,” added Aigbedo.
The Red Hawks (20-3-2) captured their sixth MHSAA state title and seventh overall including one in the Michigan Suburban Soccer Coaches Association Class A-B title in 1981 – Athens’ first year as a varsity program and the year before the MHSAA began sponsoring a state tournament. Athens also won state titles in 1983, 1984, 1989, 1997 and 2019 and was playing in its 13th Final Four week in school history.
Brighton was making its sixth appearance in the Class A/Division 1 Final Four but first appearance in the state finals in 25 years. The Bulldogs lost in the 1998 Division 1 finals to Novi (4-0) and had not been in the Final Four week since 2005. Brighton still came agonizingly short in the title quest.
“Those types of leads are hard to protect,” added Howell. “We knew they would come after us and they were able to get one in from distance.”
For the game Athens outshot Brighton 27-13 overall, 19-7 on frame and held an 11-2 advantage on cornerkicks. The game-tying goal came about 10 seconds after a cornerkick – the first time all postseason the Red Hawks were able to convert following a cornerkick.
Ethridge made six saves for Athens, including a trio of point-blank saves in the second half. Burchfield made 17 saves in his final high school game for Brighton.
FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES:
MHSAA State Championships: None
MHSAA State Runners-Up: 1998, 2023 (2)
MHSAA Final Four Appearances: 1992, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2023 (6)
MHSAA State Championships: 1983, 1984, 1989, 1997, 2019, 2023 (6)
MHSAA State Runners-Up: 1986, 2016 (2)
MHSAA Final Four Appearances: 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2016, 2019, 2020, 2023 (12)
Michigan/North Suburban Soccer Coaches Association State Championships: 1981 (1)