BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
PH: (248) 884-1051
CLARKSTON — There are always comebacks in the arena of sports.
And then are comebacks that would be considered improbable.
Rochester Hills Christian’s comeback on the soccer pitch Oct. 29 falls into the latter category.
Down 2-0 late in the second half of the Michigan Association of Christian Schools Division I state finals to Clinton Township Faith Christian, the top-seeded Eagles rallied back with two goals in the final two minutes of regulation to force overtime. Then proceeded to outscore the second-seeded Patriots 4-3 in a penalty kick shootout which went eight players deep to post a thrilling 3-2 victory in the state title match at Clintonwood Park.
It marks the second straight state title for Rochester Hills Christian (19-2-1) and third straight state finals appearance. The Eagles captured their eighth overall state crown in 12 title games appearances, also winning titles in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2012, 2018 and 2021 while finishing as the state runner-up in 1993, 2011, 2013 and 2020.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, “beamed 13th-year head coach Jerry Slota, who was the starting goalkeeper on the Eagles’ first state championship team in 1989 in a 2-1 victory over Roseville Calvary Christian. “To score two goals in the final two minutes like that to tie it, and then to come back and win it – it’s unbelievable.
“We just never gave up,” added Slota. “Being down 2-0 late, a lot of teams would have given up. But we didn’t. Their coach started to sub out some of his starters and we took advantage. We pushed a lot of kids up and were able to get those two late goals. I’ve never been a part of a comeback like this and never been a part of a shootout that went that deep.”
Beyond Rochester Hills Christian’s late two goals, the play of goalkeeper Tyler Hightower was one of the books. The junior was near-brilliant between the pipes in earning his second state title as the starting goalkeeper. He finished with 12 saves through 100 minutes of play and stopped three more shots in the shootout while watching two others sail wide of the net.
Hightower, a 6-foot, 170-pound multi-sport athlete who also excels in basketball, golf and baseball, nearly stood on his head on the day, especially in the shootout. And on the Patriots’ eighth shooter in the shootout, Hightower dove to collect the save and send the Eagles into a heap on the field.
With the 4-3 lead, Rochester Hills did not have to attempt its eighth shot.
“Sometimes you can kind of tell which way they are going (on penalties) and sometimes you have to guess,” said Hightower. “I just wanted to do my part. After we tied it up late in the second half, I felt we had a great chance.
“But I never have been a part of something like this,” said Hightower. “Last year we won 1-0 and this year we had to rally back and go (eight deep) in a shootout. What a finish.”
The Eagles finished 4-1-1 in the Wolverine Christian Conference to win the league title in the regular season, tying Faith Christian 0-0 back on Sept. 8 and defeating the Patriots 3-2 on Oct. 10 to clinch the conference title. Last season Rochester Hills Christian finished second in the league before upsetting Faith Christian 1-0 in the state title match.
“We had a lot more experience this season as compared to last year,” said Slota. “We lost our top two goal scorers from last year, but returned our goalie, some defenders and some talented midfielders and forwards who were capable of scoring. We expected to compete for (the state title) this year.”
After battling to a 0-0 draw at the half, Faith Christian scored two second-half goals off the feet of senior forward Matthew Skelton and junior midfielder Jackson Miller. Skelton converted a free kick in the 50th minute and Miller a restart in the 60th minute. The Patriots (11-4-2) began to sub freely after the 70th minute only to see Rochester Hills Christian storm back.
Senior midfielder Sam Marcu cut the Eagles’ deficit down to 2-1 with just 1:10 remaining in regulation when he scored an unassisted goal.
Rochester Hills Christian tied the game with only 13 seconds remaining in regulation when senior forward Logan Burrick scored his team-leading 17th goal of the season on a shot that deflected of the hands of Faith Christian senior goalkeeper Nathan Johns’ hands and into the net.
Neither side could convert during the two full, 10-minute overtime periods, setting the stage for the shootout and Hightower’s masterpiece in goal.
In the shootout, Marcu, junior Jonathan Mix, senior Ian Hamminga and Burrick converted their PKs in the shootout, while Hightower came up with a trio of saves.
“He got hands on three of those shots,” Slota. “You see teams miss (penalties) with shots over the crossbar, wide of the net or off the goal post, but not too often do you see a goalkeeper make several actual saves in a shootout. And we were fortunate enough to score four in the shootout. (Faith Christian) also has a very good goalie."
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