BY DAN STICKRADT
PONTIAC, Mich. — Different venue, same result.
The Thunder Bay Chill repeated as the Premier Developmental League Central Conference regional champs Saturday night, ousting the top-seeded Michigan Bucks, 2-1, in the conference finals at the Ultimate Soccer Arenas.
Pushed up on a restart, defender Wilson Rodrigues-Neto scored the game-winning goal at 85:09 to help the Chill freeze Michigan in the regional finals for the second straight season.
Last year the Chill toppled Michigan, 2-1, in double-overtime in a match played in Thunder Bay.
Rodrigues-Neto’s left-footed shot from 25 yards out found the netting inside the left goal post. Gustavo Oliveira served the ball on a cornerkick and Rodrigues-Neto beat his mark to the loose ball before burring his opportunity.
“At first I was going to make a run at the near post, but I saw the ball go over my head, so my first reaction was to go back on defense,” said Rodrigues-Neto. “But the ball stayed there and I tried to loop around when I saw the ball high in the air. I just closed my eyes on the shot and I hit it as hard as I could.”
Michigan had outscored the opposition 41-11 in 17 matches heading into the contest, but were held in check throughout the contest by the Chill, which had yielded only nine goals during the regular season.
“Our defense has really got us here,” said Chill coach Tony Colistro. “All season defense has been our strength. We’ve got the attack, but it’s really defense that has taken over. (The Bucks) have a great attack. We were able to fend them off and one of our defenders got the winning goal. We were able to knock a couple through their defense. They haven’t given up many goals all season.”
The Bucks (13-3-2) did not allow a goal at home in eight matches during the regular season and led the PDL with 12 shutouts coming into the conference finals. Yet it was the Chill who scored first, when Oliveira’s bending free kick from 30 yards out eluded Michigan goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt and found the corner of the goal on a one-hop just 7:46 into the contest.
Michigan, the all-time winningest franchise in the entire PDL which was trying to reach the Final Four for the sixth time, didn’t waste much time clawing back.
After Luke Holmes was tripped up in the penalty box, defender Stew Givens converted the ensuing penalty kick at the 10:33 mark, beating Chill netminder Stephen Peterson to his right.
The score remained 1-1 until Rodrigues-Neto’s late-game heroics.
“We beat a very good team,” said Rodrigues-Neto. “Last year we got to the (PDL) finals and came up short. I got hurt in the semifinals and didn’t play in the finals last year. I know there are a lot of guys on (this team) who want (some redemption).”
Michigan outshot the Chill 15-12, but it was Thunder Bay that proved more dangerous with an 8-7 edge with shots directly on goal and picked up a 9-5 edge on cornerkicks. Both teams had ample scoring chances throughout the match.
Peterson had six saves for Thunder Bay, while Hildebrandt finished with six saves for the Bucks, who had to come from behind the night before with a 3-2 triumph over the Des Moines Menace in the semifinals.
“Just like last night, I thought in the first half we were getting our opportunities,” offered Bucks coach Gary Parsons. “I’m not sure their defense was getting much done. I think if we would have put our chances away when we had them, and we had plenty of them, then the result might have been different. In the second half, (Thunder Bay) played much better. They took the lead even though I thought we had the better of them. Credit them for making the adjustments at halftime and stepping up and making the plays. They are a good team.”
Thunder Bay advances to the PDL Final Four for the second straight season and will play at a site, date and time to be determined Monday after all four regional finals are completed.