Collin Cavanaugh and the Saline Hornets stunned top-ranked Okemos, 3-2, in the Regional Championship game at Forest Hills Central High School Saturday.
Cavanaugh booted a 35-yard shot into the upper level corner with 2:33 to play to complete the hat trick (three goals) and put Saline ahead for good.
Nobody was more stunned than the hero, who, if you’re wondering, had waffles for breakfast Saturday.
“I can’t comprehend this. I’ve scored two goals all year. Three goals in one game? Oh my God,” Cavanaugh said.
It was a game that will be talked about for years.
“We didn’t play our best soccer, but good teams find a way to power through. That was the most exciting game I’ve ever been a part of,” Saline coach Dana Restrick said.
Throughout the post-season, the Hornets have had many heroes. Austin Welch against Grand Haven. Jake Cohen versus Howell. Matt Fitz versus Brighton. Connor Mentzer against Huron. But Cavanaugh’s performance will find its way into the Saline soccer history books.
“Three goals in a regional final game? Are you kidding me? I mean, that kid came to play,” said Saline head coach Dana Restrick.
It was an amazing turn of events for a Hornet team was on its heels after coughing up a 2-0 lead and struggling to move the ball with a 25-mph wind in its face.
“You go up two goals and see it go back to zero and you know your opponent has that wind and you know you’re going to have to battle back through it,” Restrick said. “But this is a special group. We talked before the game about how many big things happen in the final moment, and we talked about not quitting, regardless of the scenario.”
Saline advances to the semifinal against Canton at 6 p.m., Wednesday at Holt High School. Canton defeated Northville, 3-2, in a shootout, to win its regional. It’s Saline’s first trip to the semifinals since 2008, when the Hornets fell 2-0 to East Kentwood.
With the wind at their backs, the Hornets put the pressure on Okemos much of the first half. Saline struck first with 12:53 left in the half. On a free kick, Conner Williams passed to Cavanaugh in the center of the field. His 40-yard shot, backed by the wind, sailed over the keeper’s head but under the bar.
“I knew the wind was behind me so I knew I had to take another shot. And finally it just went right above the keeper,” Cavanaugh said.
Saline carried the 1-0 lead into halftime.
The Hornets opened strong in the second. Jake Cohen drove the net, one-on-two, and managed to fire a dangerous shot that was deflected out of bounds. On the resulting corner kick a Chief touched the ball with his hand. Cavanaugh lined up for the penalty kick and buried it to the left of the keeper.
“It was my go-to move right there,” he said. “I expect myself to step up in that situation and I was feeling confident about it.”
Saline had the state’s top ranked team on the ropes but they weren’t there long. The Chiefs began to press and the Hornets seemed to have trouble adjusting to the wind in their face. The pressure led to Hornet fouls and Chief free kicks. With 33 minutes to play, Saline goalie Noah Taritas made a diving save on a 30-yard free kick. But Ben Meschke got to the rebound and scored, cutting Saline’s lead to one. It was the goal allowed by Saline in the postseason.
Just six minutes later, after another foul, Tyler Bailey headed a free kick past Taritas to tie the game at two with 27 minutes left.
Suddenly, the Chiefs had all the momentum and the formidable wind at their backs.
“We knew how talented they are on set pieces. To watch a two-goal lead go away is difficult. To battle back into this kind of wind is difficult. The boys just fought through it,” Restrick said.
As the sun went down the wind became less intense and the Hornets had much more success transitioning from defense to offense. For final 20 minutes, the teams traded scoring chances. The Hornets best opportunity came when, once again, the Chiefs were called for a hand ball in the box. Okemos keeper Andrew Owczarzak made a great save on Saline senior Jared Walls.
At the other end Taritas made a couple important saves. Cole Larance, Josiah Davis and Conner Williams broke up dangerous drives toward the Saline goal. In the last five minutes, the Hornets started to press. Matt Fitz and Austin Welch had good opportunities. Finally, with about three minutes left, Saline’s scoring drive began. Fitz charged down left wing after a played-ahead ball. The goalie came diving out and Fitz played a cross pass that was headed by Nate Barnett before it was cleared away from the box by a Chief defender. The ball bounced out to Cavanaugh, about 35-yards from the goal. He fired a shot, untouched by the keeper, into the upper left corner and was mobbed at midfield by his teammates.
“I don’t even know how it went in. I was just in awe,” Cavanaugh said. “After they scored two goals, I can’t believe that we could even counter attack. We just kept going at it. It was insane. No matter what, we fight. We just fight. We have a drive to win.”
Saline held the Chiefs off for the final 2:33 to win its first regional championship since 2008.
So far this year the Hornets have won the SEC Red, District Championship and Regional Championship.
After upending the state’s top ranked team, these Hornets strut confidently into the final four.
“There are no doubts. But every level just gets harder. Canton has been a phenomenal team all year long. It will just be another test and I hope we pass it,” Restrick said.