Falcons eyeing another long postseason run
BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
UTICA — After losing just once last season and in heartbreaking fashion in the Final Four, Rochester has been on a mission this season.
The Division 1 top-ranked Falcons took another step on their tour towards a hopeful long tournament run on Tuesday afternoon.
After a sluggish start, Rochester wore down unranked Lake Orion and came away with a 4-0 shutout victory in the Division 1 district semifinals at Utica’s Swinehart Stadium.
With the win, Rochester moves onto the district finals where they will face third-ranked Rochester Stoney Creek at 6 p.m. Friday, also at Swinehart.
Stoney Creek advanced with a 1-0 shutout over previously-ranked Romeo in the second semifinal Tuesday to also advance to the district finals. Last year Rochester defeated the Cougars 2-1 in a game decided on penalties (4-3 PKs).
The Falcons led 1-0 at the half and tacked on three more goals in the second half to prevail.
“I think we just opened them up at times, maybe did a better job of switching the field and get the game pulled apart a bit,” said Rochester coach Doug Steinard. “We’ve got some kids up front that are pretty athletic and pretty good that kind of turned the game on its head a little bit.”
Rochester (18-0-2) captured their second straight OAA Red Division title two weeks ago (4-0-2) and have not lost in the regular season since late during the 2021 campaign, where they finished third in the OAA Red Division. In the postseason last year the Falcons finished 5-1. They received a first-round bye in the seven-school district this season – all seven schools finished above five-hundred and features five schools that were ranked, two league champions and three league runners-up – and are now one win away from another district title.
“We’re on our revenge tour, for sure” admitted senior Natalie Rayce, a returning All-State First Team honoree. “We hope to play Northville again in the semifinals if we can get that far. We’ll see.”
Rochester, which had the highest MPR in the entire state – all four divisions combined – notched its 11th shutout of the campaign. The Falcons have now outscored the opposition 53-10 playing a tough league and non-league schedule that features 12 opponents that were ranked in Division 1, Division 2 or Division 3 at times this season.
Although Rochester had a pair of shots and chances early, Lake Orion also had a pair of quality chances in the first 15 minutes, including a 35-yard shot that hit the crossbar in the 13th minute.
“We started off really good. We were a little bit chaotic at times but we started to find a rhythm towards the middle of the first half and settled into the game,” said Steinard. “(After) halftime we came out with a little more energy and did a better job of moving the ball. Lake Orion is really organized. They are really hard to break down.”
The Falcons finally scored the eventual game-winner with 11:19 to go in the second half. Rayce, an All-State Dream Team candidate, took a pass from senior forward Alaina Webb and laced a shot into the far corner.
In the second half, Rochester exploded for three goals in the first 15 minutes to put the game away and allowed the Falcons’ coaching staff to rotate freely as 25 players in the second half.
The Falcons came out on fire and notched their second goal just 1:01 into the second half. This time it was Webb’s left-footed blast off a pass from Rayce that found the back of the net.
Rochester scored its third goal with 35:06 still to play with Rayce nothing her second goal of the game off a feed from Webb, while junior Samantha Mickley booted home the fourth goal with 25:30 remaining off a Rayce assist.
The Falcons hit a post in each half but allowed Lake Orion (12-5-4) to also hit a crossbar twice in the game, once in each half. Rochester outshot Lake Orion 17-10, including 9-4 with shots on frame, to advance to the next round. Sophomore Alice Max notched her ninth shutout of the campaign and the Falcons’ 11th of the season.
Rochester captured district crowns in 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2013 and 2022. The Falcons have also won regional titles and reach the Final Four in Class A/Division 1 in 1994, 1995, 2007, 2013 and 2022 but face a rugged path if they are to advance that far again.
“Stoney and Romeo are both great teams. We look forward to playing either of them and hope for the best,” said Rayce.
Chances were few and far between for Lake Orion, and the Dragons failed to capitalize on the state’s top-ranked team.
“We could have got the first goal with that one off the crossbar, and in these matches, especially if you’re the underdog you’ve got to get the first goal. We didn’t,” said Lake Orion coach Chris Corteg. “We knew coming in it would be tough. They (Rochester) are undefeated for a reason.”
Lake Orion won back-to-back district crowns in 2021 and 2022 only to be shifted from a district of northern Oakland County and southern Genesee County schools down to this power district.
“They had to move us here,” said Corteg, who will only graduate four players. “Everybody in this district is good. We beat (Rochester) Adams in the first round they were ranked some this season.”
BIG NUMBERS, TOUGH SCHEDULE
Rochester earned the top MPR ranking for points at the cut-off date in mid-May and clinched the No. 1 seed in its district following a second straight Oakland Activities Association Red Division title.
The Falcons have been ranked in the top three all of the 2023 season in the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association Division 1 Top 15 and were ranked in the polls all of last season.
This is the first time in school history that Rochester finished unbeaten in the regular season two years running. Entering Friday’s D-1 district finals against Rochester Stoney Creek, the Falcons have posted a combined 35-1-6 record over two seasons playing a brutally-tough schedule.
This season Rochester has outscored the opposition 53-10 with 11 shutouts. That comes off a Final Four campaign where the Falcons held a 59-17 scoring edge with 11 clean sheets over 22 games with mostly the same roster coming back this season. Only three players, including one starter, graduated from last year’s team – whose only loss came in the Division 1 state semifinals to Northville (2-1).
“We scheduled as many quality teams as possible to help with our MVR,” admitted Steinard. “We’ve played a lot of ranked teams and lot of schools who competed in their (respective) league and that sure helped.”
Results, nevertheless, are earned on the field and not by a computer. The Falcons’ .834 win-percentage the last two years (the aforementioned 35-1-6 record) is proof in the pudding. Rochester’s 18-0-2 record this season computes to a .900 win-percentage this season and the Falcons are one of only two unbeaten squads in Division 1 – second-ranked Northville being the other.
No team has scored more than two against Rochester this season – Livonia Stevenson scored two on the Falcons in a 3-2 non-league match back in April – and last year the only squad to score three goals on Rochester was eventual state champion Bloomfield Hills (a 4-3 Rochester league win).
The Falcons have not been running up the score on most opponents, often going deep into its bench to give reserves quality minutes. In two late-season games against Royal Oak and Traverse City Central, Rochester played mostly reserves in these contests. The Falcons had an eight-goal, a seven-goal and a six-goal games last season while this year they have a pair of five-goal games before calling off the attack.
Rochester has four wins over league champions (Hudsonville, Pinckney, Traverse City Central and Utica Ford II) this season plus a 2-0-1 record against teams that finished second in their respective conferences (wins over Livonia Stevenson and Romeo and the tie against Stoney Creek, which finished second to Rochester in the OAA-Red).
Stoney Creek is the Falcons’ district finals opponent for the second straight season. Last season Rochester prevailed 2-1 (4-3 on PKs) while this year the highly-touted Cougars are ranked third in Division 1 and have posted a lofty 21-1-1 record, 16 shutouts and have wins over several high-quality opponents. Stoney Creek also owns an impressive 75-6 scoring edge in 23 games.
“We got our work cut out for us for sure,” said Steinard. “No game in our district is easy – everyone is good. If we can make a run we’ll face really good teams the whole way.”
Steinard had seven freshmen on varsity for the 2020 season, and one day after the varsity cuts it was announced that the state of Michigan would be placed on lockdowns for two weeks. The season would never be played.
In 2021 Rochester finished with a very respectable 10-3-3 record (.625 win-percentage) and its second-place finish in the OAA-Red was 4-1-1 (13 points) and just behind Rochester Stoney Creek (14 points) and just ahead of Troy Athens (12 points), the only team to defeat the Falcons in league play last year. There were eight sophomores on varsity that season.
Last year’s run to the Falcons’ fifth Final Four featured 10 juniors and several freshmen and sophomores leading up to this year’s 17 returnees from last season’s deep tournament run, including 10 starters. Rochester also has several college recruits up and down the roster – at the NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, NAIA, NJCAA or USSCAA levels.
“We have a lot of kids that will play in college or could play in college – Division I level kids down to NAIA and junior college kids and everywhere in between. We’re blessed,” said Steinard. “But we haven’t won anything yet. I think everyone wants to go further this season.
“We have a lot of experience – they’ve played together (a long time),” continued Steinard on his deep and talented roster. “The group that I have are talented. We have a core of seven that would have been four-year varsity players and 3-4 that are three-year varsity players. Three freshmen started for us last year so we have a good group of players – and it’s all about the players you have, right? I’m pretty lucky.”