By Justin Haggerty
Now they’re heading to the state semifinals with the kind of confidence and momentum that produces champions.
MCC battled Grand Rapids Covenant Christian to a tie through regulation, two overtime periods, and a shootout period on Thursday in a regional final game at the Western Michigan Christian soccer facility.
The outcome came down to a dramatic sudden-death shootout.
Crusader goalie Connor O’Neill stopped a shot from a Covenant player, then MCC’s Jose ‘Messi’ Mojica blasted his shot past the Charger goalie, finally sealing a 2-1 victory and sending the Crusader faithful into a frenzy.
Mojica was also the hero in regulation, scoring the MCC goal that tied the game midway through the second half.
Muskegon Catholic, now 12-7-4, will face Kalamazoo Hackett next Wednesday at East Kentwood High School in the semifinals. The winner will advance to the Division 4 state championship game.
“I’ve been this far before but I’ve never won this game (the regional final),” said an excited MCC Coach Bill Moulatsiotis. “This is a dream for me. It’s been my dream to get this far and now we’re playing with house money. We just want to go play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
The dramatic victory was just the latest in the string of exciting wins for the Crusaders in the tournament. Last week they upset state-ranked North Muskegon in a district semifinal game, and on Monday they eliminated Buckley with a goal with under a minute left in regulation.
The victory over Covenant Christian was a particularly big achievement, because the Chargers are state championship contenders on an annual basis.
“I’ve never beaten Covenant in my six years here,” said Moulatsiotis, whose team lost to Covenant earlier in the season. “We play them every year and every year we either tie them or lose by a goal, so this one was a little extra sweet.”
Covenant Christian opened the scoring just 20 seconds into the game with a goal off the head of Jalen VanDyke.
The Chargers had several opportunities to extend their lead, but were denied by O’Neill in the MCC goal.
With 15 minutes to play in the first half, the Chargers were awarded a penalty kick after a Crusader foul in the box. O’Neill read the play beautifully, diving to his left to make the crucial save.
Twelve minutes after that, Covenant forward Aaron Westhuis blasted a high shot that O’Neill punched over the crossbar and out of play.
The saves allowed MCC to get to halftime with only a one-goal deficit.
“We had to make some adjustments and the boys really couldn’t hear me over the crowd noise,” Moulatsiotis said. “We needed to get to halftime to get those adjustments in.”
Emotions ran high in the second half. Three yellow cards were doled out as the referee called numerous fouls.
The Crusaders finally tied the game with 19:12 remaining. Jose Zambrano lofted the ball into the mass of players in front of the net on a corner kick, and Mojica headed the bouncing ball it into the top corner of the goal to tie the game 1-1.
The Chargers took control of the midfield late in the game and had many quality scoring chances, but the MCC defense would not break.
The Crusaders’ best chance to break the tie came with 3:10 remaining when Zambrano’s free kick shot high in the air and was punched out of bounds by the Covenant goalkeeper.
After two intense but scoreless overtime periods, the teams went to an overtime shootout. Each team converted three out of five shootout shots to set up the sudden death shootout.
That’s when O’Neill and Mojica performed their heroics, and the Crusaders won the regional championship.
Moulatsiotis knows Kalamazoo Hackett will be difficult to beat in the semifinals, but noted that his team has been the underdog throughout the tournament.
“Hackett has been destroying everyone that they’re playing,” the coach said. “(They) have been highly-ranked all year long. But so was North Muskegon and so was (Western Michigan) Christian and so was Covenant, and we’re still here, so I like my chances.
“We like to be the underdog. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder no matter what.”