by BRYAN EVERSON
Over an 80 minutes where emotions at one point boiled over, Utica did the talking with its play Wednesday evening at Swinehart Field.
The Chieftains scored a decisive 4-1 victory over L’anse Creuse North, the leaders in the MAC White who had suffered just one defeat all season entering the night.
Almost no time was wasted getting on top in a play that started with freshman Ari Jalics, influential throughout the entire match, and culminating in a finish by senior Maddy Motloch in the opening minute.
“Ari basically ran the whole game today,” Utica coach Dave Moran said. “She destroyed everybody. She got the ball wide and Skylar got the ball across and Maddy scores. To score that early, it’s a big one for us.”
Freshman attacking midfielder Caitlin O’Malley was able to provide the Crusaders (10-2-1, 4-1-1 MAC White) with a leveler midway through the opening half after breaking away from the pack, but the scoring would be all to the way of the home side for the game’s remainder.
At the time, though, a critical decision by the officials looked like it might loom large in determining the outcome, as Cayley Harris played a ball forward and allowed Motloch to win a 50-50 opportunity with 7:35 left before halftime, and despite being Motloch being apparently brought down by a slide tackle from North’s Kassandra Witherspoon inside the right edge of the 18-yard box, the officials convened and awarded a free kick rather than the penalty that seemed warranted.
“Yeah, absolutely [a penalty],” Moran said. “We should’ve had another one. It is what it is, you’ve just got to deal with it and go from there.”
It nearly allowed the Crusaders to pull ahead less than seven minutes after the break when Utica goalkeeper Kaley Brenizer was forced into action with a save to her right and got some help from a defender when an opportunity at the opposite post was denied as she was in the process of working her way back into position.
Instead, a collision 11 minutes into the half among numerous players from both sides resulted in the Chieftains being awarded a penalty, and the spot kick by Jalics slipped under a diving Crusaders goalkeeper Erica Peer, who couldn’t prevent it despite guessing correctly to her left. Utica got more breathing room with 17:50 remaining when Sophia Gielniak was fouled a yard or two outside the right edge of the 18 and senior forward Liz Balaj’s header from 10 yards out didn’t leave Jalics’ free kick to waste, using the proper technique to pop it up and over the reach of Peer to take a 3-1 lead.
After the goal, North coach Chris Alston had words with the official in an exchange that rapidly escalated, resulting in two prompt yellow cards to Alston and his ejection from the match.
The lead became three with 9:15 left when Jalics and Balaj connected again, this time with the freshman finding her elder teammate on a run behind the Crusaders’ back line that looked to be narrowly onside, and Balaj slotted it past peer from 15 yards.
“The thing about [Ari] is that she’s super fluid and good, but then she looks for teammates in the end,” Moran said. “She’s going to make the right play more times than not. On the other end, Liz scores the goals we needed to and probably could’ve had two or three more.”
Brenizer came up with several big stops in the latter portion of the second half and both Haley Weber and Kayla O’Kray were standouts defensively to help lock up the win, which improves the Chieftains to 9-5-2 overall.
“It’s exciting,” Moran said. “We had a good game plan and we implemented it. It was just a good, physical game. Anytime you play a team a second time in the league, it always gets that way.”
The Chieftains are now unbeaten in their last four games with wins in three of those contests.
“We feel we’re right there with them for sure,” Moran said. “Of all the teams we’ve played this season, we’ve played four of the top Oakland County teams and have a winning record against them. We’ve got a winning record against the Red teams except Ike. We tied Ford, beat Stevenson. This team is right there.”
“You’ve got to win these games if you want to win the division.”