Troy Athens strikes fast, ends Pilots season

TROY, Mich. - De La Salle Collegiate left no doubt it could play with state-power Troy Athens Tuesday night.

But the Pilots had a little trouble finishing, while the No. 2 ranked Red Hawks couldn't miss when opportunities presented themselves in their regional semifinal matchup. In the end, Athens defeated De La Salle, 4-0, to advance to the regional championship game Thursday night, back at Troy High School.

"Troy Athens does what Troy Athens does. They hammer the box with everything they've got and they force their will upon you. That's the best way to put it," De La Salle head coach Thaier Mukhtar said. "We knew exactly what they were going to do. We've watched film and have practiced against it."

The two teams battled back and forth over the first 25 minutes of the game, each having their own good chances on goal. But it was the Red Hawks who struck first, that coming with 14:49 remaining in the first half. A loose ball in the box was taken out of mid-air by sophomore Ryan Gruca, who turned on it and connected to give his team a 1-0 lead. 

The goal didn't seem to faze the Pilots, who came right back with pressure. Six minutes later, junior CJ Fritz sent a cross into the box, where junior Spencer LeBeau's redirect hit the crossbar. The loose ball dribbled over to senior Thomas Turner, who got a foot on it. The shot sailed high.

"We had that open net and usually Tommy doesn't miss those," Mukhtar said. "That could have made it 1-1. It could have gone either way. I thought we had moments where we possessed the ball well and got it to the attack well, we just never finished in the attacking third."

That didn't seem to be a problem for the Red Hawks (20-2-1), who scored twice in a span of 1:56 late in the first half to stretch their lead to 3-0 heading into the break. The first of the goals came off a rebound, as junior Anthony Kapala poked it in to make it 2-0. A short time later, senior Andri Myftari sent a ball up to junior T.J. Renaud, who sent a cross into the box. The ball took an unfortunate bounce off a defender and went into the goal.

Despite another strong start to the second half, which saw the Pilots create an immediate scoring chance on a header by LeBeau which was saved by diving Athens goalkeeper Jason Kemp, it was the Red Hawks who came away with the lone goal of the half. Gruca's shot from about 30 yards out found the back of the net to give his team a 4-0 lead.

"I don't think the score was an indication of how the game was played," said Mukhtar, whose team finished the season with an 11-8-4 record. "We made some mistakes and it seemed like every time we made a mistake, they capitalized on it."

LeBeau and Turner each had two shots to lead the Pilots, who were outshot 15-7 by the Red Hawks. Seniors Luke Kassin and Logan Manor each had a pair of saves in goal for De La Salle.

"Tommy was dangerous when he got the ball and I think Spencer played a strong game," the coach said. "I thought Matthew Rafferty played well too and Connor Jasman in the back just cleans up the mistakes in front of him."

The Pilots will lose 10 seniors to graduation, but Mukhtar thinks his boys will bounce back just fine next season.

"Our goals stay the same. We want to challenge for the state championship every year," the coach said. "We're going to do everything we can in the offseason, do the things we can to get better, stronger and make sure that when we're in this position again we can change the outcome."

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