BY DAN STICKRADT
CLARKSTON — A year ago Rochester Hills Christian made a run to the state championship game of the Michigan Association of Christian Schools Division I tournament with a sophomore-laden team.
The Eagles are making a return trip this year as well — with far more experience.
Rochester Hills Christian defeated arch-rival Troy Bethany Christian, 3-2, Tuesday at Clarkston Springfield Christian to advance to the MACS-I finals for the seventh time in school history.
The third-ranked Eagles (15-3-0) will face top-ranked Davison Faith Baptist at 1 p.m. Saturday, also at Springfield Christian, to try to earn their first state title since 1992.
Rochester Hills Christian won four straight MACS-I titles from 1989-1992 and also finished as the state runner-up in 1993 and again last season. Both of the state championship game losses have come by the hands of Davison Faith Baptist, including 2-1 last season.
“Our guys respect Bethany. They are a very good team that beat us twice this season,” said Rochester Hills Christian coach Jerry Slota, the starting goalkeeper on the Eagles’ first state championship team in 1989, which defeated Roseville Calvary Christian 2-1 for the crown that season. “They have been one of the best teams in the MACS for the past 20 years. We knew we would have to play well to beat them.”
Rochester Hills defeated Bethany Christian 4-1 in the finals of the Eagles Cup Tournament back in August. Bethany edged the Eagles twice in Wolverine Christian Conference Black Division play this season, 3-2 in overtime and again 2-1 just two weeks ago.
The Eagles were quick to gain some measure of revenge in their fourth meeting of the campaign.
Rochester Hills never trailed the Bruins in the MACS state semifinals, scoring twice in the first seven minutes and building a 3-1 lead by halftime.
Bethany Christian (13-4-0) could not overcome the 2-0 deficit.
“We did come out a little flat and we knew they Rochester would come out and play really hard. They always do,” offered Bethany Christian coach Phil Fougere. “I thought we controlled the play in the second half and we outscored them 1-0 in the second half. We just couldn’t tie the game. Rochester had a few runs and chances but we had several scoring chances in the second half. We were a play away from tying the game.”
Troy Bethany thought it had tied the game in the 73rd minute on a goal by Noah Francis, but the tally was called back because the initial cross on the play crossed over the end line. Francis previously had a header sail just wide of the post in the 69th minute.
Troy Bethany Christian’s seniors played in four straight Final Four matches. The Bruins, which captured their sixth straight league title this season, lost in the semifinals in 2009, 2011 and this year, while they won the MACS-I state title in 2010.
“The senior class has had a lot of success in their careers,” added Fougere, who notched the 100th win in his career in the state quarterfinals last Friday. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, we would have loved to win and get back to the title game. But there are some life lessons to learn here. It’s still just a game. We fought hard but came up a little short against a good team.”
Rochester Hills Christian scored only three minutes into the game when junior midfielder Jesse Montgomery collected a through pass from senior forward Christian Ohly and laced a low shot to the far post.
Montgomery struck again with his area-leading 36th goal of the season in the seventh minute. Ohly again fed the ball to Montgomery, who split two defenders and unleashed a laser shot that sailed into the upper 90 of the net from 25 yards out.
Troy Bethany trimmed the deficit down to 2-1 in the 18th minute when junior forward Josh Grono’s cross through traffic was deposited into the back of the net by senior midfielder Ryan Woodham.
The Eagles were able to convert again with 10:00 left in the first half to go up 3-1, this time with Montgomery setting up senior forward Aaron Berry for a breakaway goal.
“I think the two-goal lead at the beginning and the 3-1 lead at the half were huge,” offered Slota. “I think that was the difference. We never let them tie it. After losing to them twice in league play, it sure feels good to beat them.”
In the second half, Bethany Christian again cut into the Eagles’ lead when junior midfielder Scott N-Cho headed home a cornerkick from freshman stopper Grant Alfolo with 29 minutes to play. The Bruins could not complete the comeback.
“I thought we did a nice job defensively against them (down the stretch),” said Slota. “They were really coming at us hard and we never allowed them (to tie it).
“It’s nice to be back in the state championship game,” added Slota. “Last year we were really young and hadn’t been in anything like that before. This year we have most of our team back from last year and a lot more experience. We’ve seen Faith several times the past couple of years. We lost to them in the state championship game last season and we split with them this season. We beat them 2-0 the first time and they beat us 4-0 the second time. I expect this time it will be a lot closer.”
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