By Dan Stickradt
Special for Second Half
ROCHESTER HILLS — There’s a ton of pressure being ranked No. 1 in the state, a target for every opponent to try to knock off the perch.
There’s ample pressure just being ranked in the top 20 in one of the state’s four divisions.
Top-ranked Grand Rapids Catholic Central understood that fact entering the Division 3 postseason.
In a tournament where upsets were the norm, the Cougars kept their composure and made a run to the school’s first boys soccer MHSAA championship with a 1-0 victory Saturday over fourth-ranked Flint Powers Catholic in the Division 3 Final at Rochester Stoney Creek High School.
Catholic Central (19-1-4) defeated four ranked teams in its final four games of the postseason and outscored its six postseason opponents by a 21-4 margin.
“It was a challenge with so many good teams out there. But there were some life lessons about being No. 1 and playing like it. A lot of life lessons just about getting here,” smiled Catholic Central coach Brian Hughes. “I told them before the game that I didn’t really care if we won today or lost. They already won based on the (journey) to get here and the fact that we had to beat some really good teams to play in the state finals. They did it together. No one individual accomplished this.”
It marked the first-ever Finals appearance for Catholic Central, which took over the top spot in the Oct. 9 coaches association rankings and firmly held its position. The Cougars, who had never won a Regional before this season, solidified their lofty ranking on the season’s final day.
On the counterattack, Catholic Central broke the stalemate with 25:29 in the first half with its first shot attempt of the contest.
Junior forward Langston Cooper broke free down the right side before slipping a cross into the penalty box. Sophomore forward Jim O’Neal was in open space to one-time a shot from six yards out past Powers goalkeeper Brendan Tilden.
“I was in the right position. But to be honest it was all Langston. He did all the work down the side to get the cross over to the middle,” said O’Neal, who recorded just his sixth goal of the season. “It was unusual to score on our first shot, but we’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Defensively, Catholic Central stifled several of Powers Catholic’s attempts. Anchored by senior center back Josh Steffes, a Division I college prospect, and junior goalkeeper Noah Hughes, GRCC left the Chargers (17-4-3) completely frustrated and unsatisfied.
“We’ve had some good talent in the past — all the talent in the world. We just could never get it done before,” said Steffes. “We knew since the beginning of the season that this was possible.”
Catholic Central shut down the Powers Catholic foursome of Chase Knoblock, Bryan Lendzion, Steven Tuttle and Mason Smith, who came in with a combined 52 goals on the season. Powers had outscored its six previous postseason opponents by a commanding 27-2 margin with four shutouts in the playoffs and 11 total clean sheets on the season.
“We had a great run, but to be honest I don’t care if we were ranked fourth or 104th. I don’t think the guys are satisfied for just being here,” said Powers Catholic coach Tony Rowe. “We have a ton of juniors coming back, and I know they’ll remember what it feels like to lose this game.”
Powers Catholic came out and controlled play for most of the first half, with a shot by Knoblock only 20 seconds into the game which Hughes leapt high to snare. The Chargers just could not penetrate Catholic Central’s defense, which yielded just 20 goals over 24 games.
“I am proud of this group for what they accomplished the past few years,” continued Rowe. “The seniors set the tone. We’ve won league championships, Districts and Regionals over the past (four years). They did a good job of making it here. We had some chances. If we would have put one in early in the game, things might have been different. (Catholic Central) is a very good defensive team. (Their) tall kid, number 11 (Josh Steffes) had them very organized, and they had him shadowing our best offensive player the whole game.”
Hughes picked up six saves for his team’s 11th clean sheet in 24 games.
Tilden finished with six saves for Powers Catholic, including two where he had to punch aside consecutive shots in the second half by GRCC’s Fernando Garcia.
Both teams traded off 10 shots in the contest, with Catholic Central holding a 7-6 edge with shots directly on frame. There were no corner kicks in the game, although both teams had several long throw-ins into the penalty box.
All attempts were thwarted except O’Neal’s games-winning tally.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Fernando Garcia (7) works for possession against Flint Powers Catholic’s Dominic Ruth. (Middle) GRCC’s Langston Cooper (4) gets position while Trevor Purman defends.
Join Robby Elliott as State Champs! takes a look at all of the action from the 2023 Boys Soccer Finals.