COMSTOCK PARK — A postseason full of upsets almost ended with one more.
Unranked Traverse City West defeated top-ranked Okemos and third-ranked Novi on their way to Saturday’s Division 1 boys soccer final at Comstock Park High School.
This time, facing second-ranked Troy Athens, the Titans overcame a 1-0 deficit late in the second half to force overtime. However, the Red Hawks surged in the second overtime period and handed TC West a 4-1 defeat to claim the state championship.
“I couldn’t be happier with this group,” TC West coach Matt Griesinger said. “I could be happier with the result, obviously, but I couldn’t be happier with this group of 18 guys. They gave their all this season and (Saturday).”
The Titans (18-5-2) would never lead in Saturday’s final. The first half was played without a goal while battling through a mix of rain and snow. Troy Athens (23-2-1) took the game’s first lead in the 52nd minute when Andri Myftari placed a free kick in the back of the net.
In typical Traverse City West style, the Titans would rally to even up the game in the later stages. TC West was awarded a penalty kick with 13:51 remaining in regulation and the shot went to sophomore Colin Blackport. As he did on Wednesday in the semifinal win over Novi, Blackport got the shot past the keeper to even up the score.
The Titans would build off the momentum of the penalty kick with some scoring opportunities in the closing stages of the second half, but couldn’t find the game-winner. The same could be said of the first overtime period, as Athens looked a bit shook after losing its lead.
“It’s indicative of the fact we’re hard workers and we’re a collective group that believe in engaging the process of going for a journey,” Griesinger said of his team’s fight on Saturday. “We talked about all year that we wanted to see how far we could take this, and credit to Troy Athens, they are a well-deserving team. But, I am super proud of the boys. They stuck in there and proved that there is a lot of good soccer that happens in the north too.”
In the second overtime, Troy Athens broke the game open. Sophomore Ryan Gruca got the game-winner when the Titans made a save, but the rebound got away from them and allowed Gruca to bury a shot into an open net.
Two minutes later, the Red Hawks had a corner kick find its way to Rishi Kalyan, who placed a shot between the legs of the TC West keep for a score.
Gruca added a second goal two minutes later when a TC West mistake at midfield gave him a breakaway opportunity.
“Soccer is a game of moments and it’s all about seizing them,” Troy Athens coach Todd Heugh said. “You can’t get to a state final and dominate games. It just doesn’t happen very much in Division 1. We talked about before the game, at halftime and before overtime that (TC West) was going to have their moments and we were going to have our moments. It’s about what we were going to do with our moments. The kids seized their moments.”
The three-goal overtime overshadowed a strong effort from the Titans, who reached the state finals after an 1-4-1 start to the season and eventually finished with an 18-5-2 record.
“I think the guys recognized that there were some changes that needed to be made and maybe they were reluctant to make those changes, which led to four losses,” Griesinger said. “Since then, there’s been a lot of trust and a lot of buy-in. The guys all decided to come together and that’s 18 guys that decided to come together as one team. One loss in the last three months says a lot about what those 18 guys could do.”
TC West will graduate five seniors and bring back 13 from the runner-up squad.
The Titans last appeared in the state finals in 2006 when they defeated Livonia Stevenson 1-0.
“It’s good for some of the younger guys to see what this is like, but it also says a lot when five seniors can lead you this far. It says great things about the program,” Griesinger said. “It was good to come back for the second time. Now that guys have seen it, I think they are going to be ready to attack it head-on next year.”