BOYS SOCCER: Chasing Perfection: Troy Athens takes unbeaten record into postseason, eyes sixth state title
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BY DAN STICKRADT
TROY — It’s hard to imagine boys soccer and success not being in the same sentence when it comes to Troy Athens. Since launching its inaugural program back in 1981, the Red Hawks have only suffered only three seasons of sub-five-hundred ball and have a track record matched by only a few rival programs across the state.
In all reality, Athens has become one of the state’s most successful programs of all time and 2013 could become one of the most successful to date. That wouldn’t be bad considering that the Red Hawks have recorded 15 league championships, 16 district titles, nine regional trophies, advanced to the Class A/Division 1 Final Four nine times, captured five state championships and finished as the state runner-up once in 33 years.
Athens’ only years under five-hundred seasons in boys soccer were 2006, 2007 and 2008 and the Red Hawks have losing records against only four programs all-time (Ann Arbor Pioneer, 0-1-1; Novi, 0-2-0; Rochester Stoney Creek, 3-4-4; and Novi Detroit Catholic Central, 0-2-1).
In 2006, when Athens recorded a program low four wins, the Red Hawks still finished with nine ties (4-6-9 overall). Athens is still 30-21-13 against Troy, 42-17-5 against Rochester and 34-22-10 against Rochester Adams — its three biggest rivals over the years.
To add to their prosperous history, the Red Hawks have finished as a district runner-up eight more times and as a league runner-up four times. Since its launch in August of 1981, the Athens boys soccer program has posted a stellar 503-147-84 overall record, including an amazing 19-0-0 in the regular season this year. The Red Hawks have averaged 15.3 wins a season.
What’s more amazing is that the Red Hawks have had only two head coaches in their history — Hall of Fame coach Tim Storch, who guided Athens from 1981 to 2010 before retiring and moving to Alpena, and Todd Heugh, who played on Athens’ Final Four team in 1988 and on the 1989 state championship team.
Heugh was Storch’s top choice as his successor and he has upheld Storch’s tradition as a state power. Since Heugh’s arrival, Athens has won back-to-back leagues, captured a district in 2011 and reached the regional finals that season. The Red Hawks are also 47-9-4 in Heugh’s three seasons and heading into postseason play.
“I always go to the banners on the gym wall and ask the players ‘What type of mark do they want to leave?’” said Heugh at a recent practice. “We have a lot of history and I think it can serve as a great motivator.”
Perhaps this year’s team has been quite motivated, since the Red Hawks finished 7-0-0 inside OAA Red Division play. Athens’ undefeated regular season is the school’s first since 1983, when Athens was 16-0-2 in the regular season and went on to win the Class A state championship and finish 21-0-2. Athens has won 15 or more games 17 times and 20 or more games six times. A total of 11 times, including this season, Athens has recorded three or fewer losses
Joining the 1983 squad, the school’s other state championship years were in 1981 (coaches association Class A-B title), 1984 (Class A), 1989 (Class A) and 1997 (Division 1). Athens was also state runner-up in 1986 and reached the Final Four in 1988, 1995 and 1998.
Understandably, Athens is now ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 1 for compiling the extremely rare unbeaten record in the regular season. This is the first time the Red Hawks recorded all wins and no ties in the regular season.
“When I was at Athens, we had many great teams with some really good records,” recalled Storch. “It’s hard to say which one was the best. Record-wise, there were four or five teams that had really outstanding records. I know we didn’t lose in ’83 and in ’81 we lost only one game. We had a few others where we had only two or three losses and lot of teams that had 20 or more wins. I am proud of Todd (Heugh) and the start that they have had. Todd has done a great job the past three years.”
The players have bought in, both to the history and the current season.
“We know all about the history,” smiled senior forward Luis Anaya, one of the team’s leading scorers. “We’ve heard stories about some of the great teams and players and we want to live up to that. We want to win a state championship.”
What makes Athens so special this season is…well, there are many reasons for the unbeaten record. The Red Hawks have 14 seniors, “excellent leadership,” according to Heugh, a deep bench, and players who understand their roles. Then there’s a well-balanced offensive attack and a stingy defensive unit.
Athens has outscored the opposition 67-6 and has pitched 14 shutouts against quality competition. Bryan Lawson leads Athens with 17 goals and 16 assists, while Anaya has chipped in with 12 goals and nine assists. Tyler Gasko has nine goals and eight assists while Marc Hebbeker has seven goals and five assists for the Red Hawks, who have had 14 different players score goals and 16 players register assists.
Aaron Gebauer and Adam Antosh have been stellar defensively on the backline, keeping the opposition at bay. Senior Aaron Hufer, a first-year starter in goal and a converted baseball player turned goalkeeper, has posted a 0.31 goals-against-average in 19 games with a save percentage over .900 and 14 shutouts.
To keep the record straight, Athens has not played a power-puff schedule, recording wins over quality sides Rochester Adams, Rochester, Clarkston, Troy, Midland Dow, Traverse City West, Walled Lake Northern, Auburn Hills Avondale, Livonia Stevenson, Detroit U-D Jesuit and Grosse Ile — all programs that have enjoyed tremendous success over the years (seven of those teams have won state championships). U-D Jesuit is the only team to score two goals in a game against the Red Hawks, while Athens has allowed just three goals in its last 10 games, including the two goals to No. 10-ranked U-D Jesuit.
Athens received a bye this week in its Division 1 district, and will take on the winner of the Troy-Sterling Heights Stevenson contest at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Athens in the district semifinals. Stevenson is also ranked, coming in at No. 9 in the polls and carrying a fine 15-0-2 record.
“If we are to make a run, our path is not easy,” said Heugh, understanding the soccer landscape and what schools are in each district and regional. “We have some good teams in our district and some other good teams will be in our regional — if we get there. Stevenson hasn’t lost yet and they are in our district. We know that we will have to show up. It’s a whole new season when the playoffs begin.”
Yes, it’s the boys soccer postseason, where Athens has enjoyed plenty of highlight runs over the years. Can 2013 create another memorable finish?
(Dan Stickradt is Senior Editor for Digital Daily www.northoaklandsports.com and The Real Deal sports and coupons magazine, as well as a freelance writer for multiple media outlets, including State Champs! High School Sports Show website. He is a 20-year veteran sports journalist based in Oakland County, Mich. He can be reached by email at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @LocalSportsFans.)