During the regional semifinal game between Saline and Woodhaven at Dearborn High School Wednesday night, the Lady Hornets found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
For the first time nearly two months, an opponent had scored a goal and taken the lead on the Hornets.
Senior Hanna Bird and junior Morgan Jones scored second half goals to give Saline a 2-1 victory and advance to the regional final against Plymouth at Dearborn High School.
“It wasn't our best 80 minutes today but we definitely never gave up. That belief in ourselves was the key to victory,” said Saline head coach Ryan Williams.
The Hornets owned the game, territorially, in the first half. They generated an early corner kick. Emily Eitzman got behind the defense and put a shot on goal. Midway through the first half, the Hornets turned the ball over at midfield. Woodhaven turned the ball up the right wing and was awarded a free kick deep in Saline territory, along the right sideline. The kick was a beauty, just out of the reach of the outstretched Annika Udrys. Freshman Olivia Alexander got to the side of the net and kicked it into the goal.
It was the first goal Saline had given up since the April 15 loss to Brighton.
Saline turned the field on Woodhaven for most of the remainder of the first half. They generated several corner kicks and a couple shots. They also missed the net on a few chances.
Saline’s best chance came with 6.3 seconds left. Genesis Pena’s free kick from the left sideline bounced off the goalie’s hands and then off the crossbar.
Saline was down 1-0 at halftime.
“We were pretty frustrated at halftime. We didn't give up much and to give up that goal. That was a great ball played in and great finish,” said Williams, who felt his team wasn’t playing its best soccer. “We talk about a lot about staying calm and not panicking and we felt we did that a little bit. Our girls started playing nervous and it showed in our play.”
Williams credited senior Hannah Bird for helping get the team focused.
“She's one of the main leaders on this team. She talked about just believing,” Williams said.
Bird, one of several Hornets who played on the 2015 state championship team, said the Hornets used their poor play as motivation to improve. And Bird and her teammates talked about believing in each other.
“We talked about believing in ourselves and our teammates. To believe that if I pass this ball, my teammate is going to get to it and too work off each other,” Bird said. “We played too individualized in the first half.”
First, the Hornets survived an early scare. Woodhaven senior Katie Varnie slipped behind the defense and was one-on-one with Udrys, but she kicked the ball wide to the left.
Saline immediately turned the ball up the field. Bird scored the huge goal to tie the game 7:03 into the second half. Freshman Sophia Wood made a great cross in from the left sideline, leaving Bird to battle two Woodhaven girls for the ball inside the box. Bird won the battle and then booted the ball into the top corner.
“Hannah is an amazing player because she doesn't give up on any plays. She was a bulldog and had a great finish into the top corner,” Bird said.
Less than two minutes later, Morgan Jones gave Saline the lead. Bird was dribbling up the middle and Jones had room on the left sideline. She caught up to Bird’s pass and sprinted in, shielding the ball from her defender. As the goalie came out to challenge, Jones unleashed a rocket into the top corner.
“Morgan is a girl we play in multiple positions. When we went down a girl we pushed her up and she created opportunities,” Williams said. “We knew if we continued to feed her the ball she would create a good look. It was a great finish so I'm very happy for her.”
The 2-1 goal was important to the team and to Jones, personally. Last year, she was the team’s leading goal scorer. This year, she’s returned to defense, where she played when the Hornets won the state title.
“I was so excited because I scored a lot of goals last year, so it feels really good to have a game-changing moment of scoring a goal in the regional semifinal game, to turn the game around and put us on top,” Jones said.
Woodhaven didn’t roll over. They had two more great chances. A rush up the right side resulted in a hard shot that was wide right. A free kick with four minutes to play soared over the net.
Now the Hornets take aim at a regional championship. A win against Plymouth propels them to the state semifinal game June 14.
Expect a low-scoring game, Williams said.
“They're tough to score on. They don't give up many goals. We don't give up many goals. I expect it will be an 80-minute grind,” Williams said. Any team that gets this far into the tournament can play. We're excited for the challenge.”