BOYS SOCCER NOTEBOOK: Troy Athens carries unblemished record into tournament, plus district predictions
TROY — A similar pattern hopefully doesn’t yield the same result.
At least that’s how Troy Athens boys soccer coach Todd Heugh views it as the 2018 state tournament looms.
In 2013, Troy Athens held down the No. 1 spot in Division 1 all season and took a perfect 20-0-0 record into the district finals before becoming upset victims by Utica, 3-2, in overtime, thus shattering the Red Hawks’ title dreams.
“We have played well overall, except for a couple of halves,” admitted Heugh, who was a starter on Athens’ Class A state championship game back in 1989 and head coach of Athens’ state runner-up squad in 2016. He also coached Rochester to the 2002 D-1 state title.
“It’s funny, but in the back of my mind, I thought about would it be better for us to have a setback going into the tournament to see if we can handle the adversity (of a loss)?” continued Heugh. “You never play to lose. I was thinking it because of what happened to us in 2013. We’re not in an easy district this year. We never are.”
Athens trailed Rochester Adams 1-0 at the half back on Oct. 2, only to come out and dominate in the second half and score twice for the win, showing it has the mettle to come back.
Playing a tough schedule, the Red Hawks have posted many solid wins against perennial teams and Athens’ 6-0 victory over MAC Red Division champion Utica Eisenhower (13-3-3) on Oct. 11 showcased just how explosive this team can be.
This year Athens has been ranked No. 1 in Division 1 since the opening coaches association polls in early September — the Red Hawks were ranked No. 2 overall in the State Champs Network Super 50 in the preseason — and have been as a good as advertised.
“We figured we would be good this season, but I have to be honest: If we would have been something like 10-2-2 late in the regular season I would have been fine with that considering the teams we play this season,” said Heugh. “But some of the teams that have traditionally been strong we have beaten fairly handily. We have great goalkeeping, we’re very organized in the back, we’re very fast and play with a lot of pace and we are balanced (offensively). We don’t have that one player where other teams feel like they have to mark that player. We have a lot of players that can score goals for us.”
Athens outscored opponents 71-6 over its first 19 games and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. The Red Hawks own 14 shutouts and captured the coveted OAA Red Division crown at 7-0-0, outscoring league foes with an impressive 22-2 edge with five shutouts.
Athens opens up the D-1 state tournament on Oct. 16 against MAC Blue Division Warren Cousino (15-2-2), a senior-heavy team that would nothing more than to wreck a perennial powerhouse program’s dream season. MAC Red Division runner-up Utica awaits in the semifinals — the same program the ruined Athens perfect mark five years ago.
Athens owns five state titles with three runner-up finishes since launching its soccer program back in 1981 and last won a state title in 1997, being one of seven teams in an eight-school district that year that saw time in the rankings. The Red Hawks fell out of the top 10 the week before the ’97 tournament began but went on a run with multiple wins against quality teams en route to the title.
This year, Jacob Slimak leads a balanced offense with 12 goals and 10 assists. TJ Reanud (10-6), Sean McConnell (7-5), David DiGiovanni (6-2) have also had strong seasons for the Red Hawks, who have had 12 different players score goals and 17 total players gain points.
Junior Jason Kemp shared time in goal last season and even earned All-District honors. This season Kemp has played in 15.5 games, giving up just four goals with 14 shutouts, a 0.26 GAA and a .900-plus save percentage.
Senior center back Aidan Fawcett has anchored the back line that has been hard to penetrate, as the 0.32 team GAA indicates.
“Our back line is very solid. They cover for each other and they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” said Heugh. “And when you have a very good goalkeeper back there, it makes it difficult for other teams to score. To give up the (six) goals with the schedule that we play, it shows how strong we are in the back.”
BERKLEY BEARING DOWN
Berkley is enjoying its best season to date. The runners-up to top-ranked Troy Athens in the OAA Red Division, the Bears are 15-2-2 entering the postseason, the best mark in school history, and also ranked an all-time best fifth in Division 1.
Berkley lost in the district finals last season, falling to Troy, 1-0. Troy graduated 19 of 23 players from its Final Four squad from a year ago. The Bears open up Oct.15 with a shot or revenge on the unranked Colts (8-6-3).
Berkley defeated Troy, 3-2, back on Sept. 6.
PORTAGE CENTRAL SEEKING TITLE
Dating back to the 1980s, Portage Central has generally been a top 20 program in Class A/Division 1. Yet the Mustangs have never captured a state title in boys soccer.
Portage Central (15-3-1) captured both the regular-season and tournament title in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West Division this season and is soaring into the postseason. The Mustangs are now No. 2 in Division 1 and riding a seven-game win streak entering the postseason.
Portage Central’s last loss was to 2016 state champ East Kentwood (1-0) back on Sept. 13, the same team that blanked the Mustangs, 4-0, in last year’s regional finals.
The Mustangs have one of the state’s toughest first-round matchups against seventh-ranked Okemos, another team accustomed to being a mainstay in the top 20 in D-1.
Okemos is 13-3-1 entering the tournament, recently finishing third in the CAAC Gold Cup tournament.
EAST LANSING NOT GOING ANYWHERE
After Nick Archer retired from coaching soccer last winter, Jeff Lyon took over the reigns at East Lansing and the Trojans have not skipped a beat.
The Division 2 runners-up last season defeated Haslett (1-0) for the CAAC Gold Cup championship on Oct. 9 and are 14-1-2 this season. East Lansing lost to Okemos (5-1) back on Sept. 26 only to return the favor on Oct. 4 with a 2-1 win over the Cheiftains (No. 7 in Division 1).
East Lansing is 5-3 all-time in state championship games, most recently winning a D-2 crown in 2014. The Trojans enter the D-2 tourney ranked fourth and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.
BIRMINGHAM GROVES ON THE WAY UP
Birmingham Groves posted a 1-2-2 record against programs from the OAA Red Division this season. The Falcons will join that division next season after going 6-0-0 in the OAA White Division this season.
Groves won the OAA-Blue in 2016 and finished second in the OAA-White last season. Groves has 39 wins over the past three years and is a respectable 12-6-2 entering the D-1 tournament.
Groves opens against winless Oak Park in the district opener and should face the winner of Berkley/Troy in the district semis. The Falcons last won a district in 2013.
In 2017, Jackson cracked the Division 1 Top 20 for the first time in school history. This season the Vikings are in a new conference, joining the Southeastern Conference White Division after competing in the CAAC Blue Division for years.
Jackson has followed that up with a 14-1-2 regular season and high hopes as a program.
Jackson is in a tough district and faces Portage Northern (12-8-1) in the district opener on Oct. 16. A win will put the Vikings up against either No. 2 Portage Central or No. 7 Okemos in the district semifinals.
Jackson’s only loss was to Division 1 No. 3 Saline on Sept. 13 (1-0).
WARREN DE LA SALLE MAKING COMEBACK
In the 29 years that Thaier Mukhtar was head coach at Warren De La Salle, the Pilots won 26 district championships with 10 Final Four appearances, five state championships and one runner-up trophy through the 2011 season. The Pilots last state title came in 2005.
Mukhtar left after the 2011 season and spent six years at Fraser, leading that school to the D-1 Final Four in 2014. He is now back with the Pilots and has them playing like a typical De La Salle-of-old team — dangerous at tournament time.
De La Salle was ranked No. 10 in he Oct. 1 rankings and is currently listed as honorable mention.
The Pilots finished second to defending D-1 state champion Novi Detroit Catholic Central in the CHSL Central Division standings and carry a 15-3-4 record into the postseason.
De La Salle opens district play Oct. 15 against Harrison Twp. L’Anse Creuse.
FORDSON MAKES STATEMENT
Dearborn Fordson is having a dream season. The Tractors dented the top 10 in Division 1 back in September for a couple of weeks and are 14-2-1 entering the postseason.
In its first season in the KLAA East Division, Fordson won the crown with a 12-1-1 league record. The Tractors’ only losses are to rival Dearborn and No. 9 Brighton (4-0) in the KLAA championship game.
Fordson is in the same district with Dearborn (15-3-1), Detroit Western International (13-4-1) and Detroit U-D Jesuit (8-8-4) amongst others.
IMLAY CITY LANDS ON SOCCER MAP
They say that Imlay City is the gateway into the Thumb of Michigan. It’s also a rising soccer community.
The Spartans have come on strong the past five years and are enjoying a fine season, now ranked an all-time best fourth in Division 3.
The Spartans (13-6-0) captured both the regular season and tournament title in the Blue Water Area Conference, topping Yale (2-0) in the tournament finals.
Imlay City loaded up on Division 1 and Division 2 schools to prepare the Spartans for the state tournament, which resulted in their six losses. Imlay City opens up at home on Oct. 15 against Macomb Lutheran North, a program that is no stranger to numerous long state tournament runs in its history.
FOREST HILLS NORTHERN, GRC BOTH ROCKIN’ IT
The last time Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern lost a boys soccer match was in the Division 2 regional semifinals to Grand Rapids Christian last October. The Huskies are currently ranked No. 1 in D-2 and own an 18-0-1 record entering the postseason.
Grand Rapids Christian (18-1-0) is ranked No. 2 and should the two powers win districts again, they could meet up again in the regionals.
The Huskies, champions of the OK Conference White Division, own 15 shutouts and much like Division 1 Troy Athens, this team has only yielded six goals all season and only four teams have even scored against FHN. Forest Hills Northern also owns a 1-0 win over Grand Rapids Christian back on Sept. 17.
Grand Rapids Christian, the OK Conference Gold Division champs, has also posted 15 clean sheets with a 73-4 scoring edge this season.
The two have been ranked 1-2 all season.
DISTRICT 1: Grand Haven
DISTRICT 2: East Kentwood
DISTRICT 3: Portage Central
DISTRICT 4: Midland Dow
DISTRICT 5: Saline
DISTRICT 6: Woodhaven
DISTRICT 7: Salem
DISTRICT 8: Dearborn Fordson
DISTRICT 9: Berkley
DISTRICT 10: Troy Athens
DISTRICT 11: Warren De La Salle
DISTRICT 12: Utica Eisenhower
DISTRICT 13: Novi Detroit Catholic Central
DISTRICT 14: Brighton
DISTRICT 15: Rochester Adams
DISTRICT 16: Grand Blanc
DISTRICT 17: Stevensville Lakeshore
DISTRICT 18: Grand Rapids Christian
DISTRICT 19: Richland Gull Lake
DISTRICT 20: Marshall
DISTRICT 21: New Boston Huron
DISTRICT 22: Melvindale
DISTRICT 23: Hamtramck
DISTRICT 24: Birmingham Detroit Country Day
DISTRICT 25: Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood
DISTRICT 26: Marysville
DISTRICT 27: Fenton
DISTRICT 28: Dexter
DISTRICT 29: East Lansing
DISTRICT 30: Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern
DISTRICT 31: Spring Lake
DISTRICT 32: Bay City Western
DISTRICT 33: Dowagiac Union
DISTRICT 34: Otsego
DISTRICT 35: Hudsonville Unity Christian
DISTRICT 36: Portland
DISTRICT 37: Lansing Catholic
DISTRICT 38: Brooklyn Columbia Central
DISTRICT 39: Grosse Ile
DISTRICT 40: Clawson
DISTRICT 41: Imlay City
DISTRICT 42: Ovid-Elsie
DISTRICT 43: Essexville-Graber
DISTRICT 44: Freeland
DISTRICT 45: Muskegon Orchard View
DISTRICT 46: Ludington
DISTRICT 47: Gladwin
DISTRICT 48: Elk Rapids
DISTRICT 49: Marcellus Howardsville Christian
DISTRICT 50: Hartford
DISTRICT 51: Wyoming Potter’s House Christian
DISTRICT 52: Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic
DISTRICT 53: Adrian Lenawee Christian
DISTRICT 54: Ann Arbor Greenhills
DISTRICT 55: Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central
DISTRICT 56: Royal Oak Shrine Catholic
DISTRICT 57: Auburn Hills Oakland Christian
DISTRICT 58: Memphis
DISTRICT 59: Marlette
DISTRICT 60: Burton Genesee Christian
DISTRICT 61: Muskegon Western Michigan Christian
DISTRICT 62: Buckley
DISTRICT 63: Roscommon
DISTRICT 64: Leland
(Dan Stickradt is a 25-year veteran sports writer in Michigan who covers soccer for the StateChampsNetwork. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Twitter @LocalSportsFans)