Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Macomb Lutheran North struck early, and more than 60 minutes of play had gone by before Imlay City answered the call.
But with experienced seniors, unparalleled team chemistry, and relentless passion for the game, the Spartans prevailed to win the MHSAA Division 3, District 42 boys soccer title with a 2-1 shootout victory.
“It’s an amazing feeling, especially for the players,” Imlay City head coach Luis Hernandez said. “We have a history with Lutheran North.”
This is the third consecutive district title for the Spartan soccer program, but even more important is that the team finally corrected four straight season-ending losses to the Mustangs from 2016-2019. Last night’s match was the first time these two teams had played since the Spartans’ 2-1 loss in 2019, one that the team’s seven seniors and many alumni remembered.
“It was kind of revenge,” Hernandez said. “A lot of the alumni acknowledged the team [after the game], ‘Guys you finally beat them, anything’s possible at this point.’”
One of those seniors is Jose Salcedo, a team captain who wasn’t going to accept defeat. Hernandez said before the game, Salcedo told his teammates, “We’re going to win or die trying.”
“He's a great, great leader. He’s the one always pushing the kids and saying, ‘This isn't over. We’re going to the final whistle,’” Hernandez said. “Those are typical things that a captain would say and he’s a great example of that.”
And the Spartans fought with all they had. After Lutheran scored early in the first period, Imlay City controlled much of the second but was still unable to find the net. Finally, with less than three minutes remaining, senior Sergio Galiana scored on a free kick. That’s when Hernandez said he knew his team would win.
“In a game like that with the adrenaline, they don’t feel anything at that point. It’s a final, so the adrenaline was all over the place,” Hernandez said. “It was physical and it showed how much both teams really wanted to win, and that’s usually the way these types of games go. You’ve got to go in there and play 100% or you don’t play at all.”
The buzzer signaled the end of regulation and the two teams prepared for overtime. After two 10-minute periods, the score remained the same, 1-1, sending them into a shootout.
Lutheran North shot first and missed. Now it was Imlay City’s turn.
“The first shooter is always the crucial one because if he scores, it injects confidence into the following players. It’s not just selecting five kids. It matters when it comes to who’s first and who’s last, and that’s what the coaches need to acknowledge,” Hernandez said.
Salcedo went first, and with a clean shot, put the Spartans ahead 1-0. Each team would get four more attempts.
“Typically in games like these, these guys have been playing at the highest levels so when we select the shooters, the first thing is, who feels confident enough to do it,” Hernandez said. “We practice it throughout the season. We do rounds of PKs and we start to see who steps up and who the leader is, the confident one who can take that pressure…But it’s not the same as being fully engaged in a game with your season at stake. The pressure is just completely different.”
The Mustangs made three, but Imlay City’s seniors – Juan Zepeda, Galiana, Edwin Galindo, and Luis Barragan – handled the pressure with poise, securing a 4-3 win.
“Right now they’re celebrating the moment, but today I’m already thinking about Frankenmuth,” Hernandez said. “These guys are still thinking about yesterday's game, but today we’ve got to get back to work.”
And Hernandez said he's confident his players will be ready to do so as they're already eager and asking about this weekend's practices.
The Spartans will look to extend their season in the regional semifinal on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m. against Frankenmuth. They played once in a tournament this season back in August and Frankenmuth won 1-0. The Eagles currently stand 17-4-3, and Imlay City is 17-4-1, but at this point in the season, anything is possible.
The match will take place at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, a field that’s become a second home to the Spartans as they played their district tournament there.
“We’re glad we're there now because we’re familiar with the field. Playing three games on that field, it makes you feel like you have the home-field advantage,” Hernandez said. “Half the town was there yesterday. There's going to be quite a few people there [on Tuesday].”
For in-game updates and other news, follow Calli on Twitter @ newberry_calli
To receive notifications about new stories from The Sports Report, subscribe for free.