ARGENTINE TOWNSHIP — For the third year in a row, the St. Clair girls soccer team was on the precipice of its first-ever regional championship.
This time felt different. It certainly looked different. But in the end, those differences weren't enough.
The Saints fell to Linden, 3-0, in a Division 2 regional final at Claude M. Cranston Field on Thursday.
It was the first loss in nearly two months for St. Clair, which finished the season at 15-3-1 overall.
"I thought whoever was winning the 50/50 balls would have a good chance to win this game," St. Clair coach Cliff Freeland said. "The teams were pretty (evenly-matched) from what I saw. (Linden) was really good up front. They're very organized. But this St. Clair team, we can play with anybody and we knew that. We played some great teams this year."
The game was highly competitive, with both sides generating quality scoring chances all night. Yet neither team was able to capitalize in the first half.
That changed in the second, when Linden broke the scoreless tie with 19:55 remaining. Following a deflection in the goal area, the Eagles redirected the ball into the net. They'd add two more goals to finish the scoring.
With its constant pressure, St. Clair kept threatening but was never able to score.
"This (season) was the first time I actually thought we could go to Lansing," Freeland said in reference to the MHSAA state finals. "I've had some good groups. I really thought this team — we didn't have our best stuff Tuesday, but we found a way to win. I really thought if we brought our best stuff (today) that we could go to Lansing."
While a trip to the state's capital will have to wait, the Saints' "best stuff" still led to immense success this season. St. Clair clinched the MAC Blue title (its second in a row) with an 11-0-1 record in league play. Then on June 2, the team won its third straight district championship.
Those accolades would not have been with possible without the current senior class of Ella Farkas, Kennedy Hollerbach, Samantha Harwood, Kaylen Walker, Aubrey Donaldson and Abigail Perry.
"They helped build a powerhouse," Freeland said. "They bought in from day one. I've had some good classes and this was a big one with six of them. When my coaching staff and I came in, we wanted to change the culture. We wanted to play possession soccer and bring a different type of intensity — 80 minutes of non-stop action and pressuring the ball. And that group helped put that on the map."
Freeland took over the program in 2018. In the five seasons since, the Saints have four district championships, two MAC Blue titles and an overall record of 68-20-14.
But they're far from satisfied. And with 14 players returning for 2024, St. Clair is ready to run it back.
"We want to get that regional (championship)," Freeland said. "And I think we're building in the right direction."
Contact Brenden Welper at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrendenWelper.
This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: After regional loss, St. Clair soccer still in the 'right direction'