With the first half of the district 13 soccer final already set, Farmington Hills Mercy and Birmingham Groves fought hard to fill the other slot in the bracket.
It was an extremely physical game, filled with hard tackles and aggressive play — but it had to be that way, given how strong each team's defenses were throughout the contest.
The game couldn't stay scoreless forever, and Mercy took a 1-0 win thanks to a second half goal from sophomore Madeline Kenney.
The Marlins improve to 4-11-1, while the Falcons fall to 4-9-8 to end their season.
Mercy will play Livonia Stevenson (16-2-2) in the district final on Saturday at North Farmington High School.
Stevenson beat Farmington in game one on Tuesday, 4-0.
"I think we stepped up in a different way than we usually do," Mercy co-head coach Tania Macioce said. "When we play against physical teams it usually rattles us a little bit and I thought today we kept our composure. We're a finesse team, and when the physical teams come in, usually that isn't a good thing for us, but I thought they played great. We didn't let that throw us off our game."
This is the first time that the Marlins have made a district final since 2012.
"It's huge," Mercy co-head coach Tom James said. "We've been struggling all year, you just need to look at our record to see that. We have a lot of one-goal losses ... it's just a positive step for the program to get to the final. We've got a big task ahead of us, it's a great Stevenson team. We're up for the challenge and will be ready for them."
The first half saw plenty of back-and-forth action with neither team really having a great scoring chance. The second half, however, was a different story.
Mercy was able to center a number of passes and despite missing on several, made sure one finished with a goal. Sophomore Olivia Engler found Kenney on the right side of the box, who fired a low grounder into the low left corner of the net. That would stand as the game's only goal.
"We could've had a few more and it wouldn't have been a nail-biter at the end, but that's how these games go," James said. "Games always tighten up when you get to the district tournament. You have to be able to win these games and thankfully we were able to pull it out."
Groves had its best chance of the game with just under 14 minutes remaining. Freshman defender Ella Plumstead rocketed a magnificent looking shot towards the goal from about 25 yards out on a free kick, but Mercy freshman goalie Sophie Palizzi reached up and made an even better save, deflecting the ball out of harms way.
Palizzi's teammates swarmed her in excitement, realizing the importance of the save.
"She's been kicking butt," senior captain Erica Padula said. "That was absolutely beautiful. I was screaming, everyone was screaming. It was so crazy. It was beautiful, she's had lots of saves like that. She's literally just picked it up this year, we're all so proud of her, she's done everything for us."
Palizzi joined the program after the team's previous goalie decided not to return. James said she stepped up at tryouts and has been a key player all season for the Marlins.
Even though she's young, she's helps keep her team in line during games and does her best to provide momentum when she can. In such a physical, defensive game that was key.
The ability to withstand the physical pressure Groves put on Mercy was noticed by the players as well.
"I definitely think it shows that we've grown and had more composure in these last few games," Padula said. "Not getting worked up about bad calls or other players, it's just a game, we're all playing the same game and are here for the same reason. ... We can get aggravated, but we've been regrouping every time."
Mercy, the lone Catholic League team playing in division one, has a big challenge ahead in Stevenson. Both coaches and players alike acknowledged that an upset over the Spartans would be monumental for the program.
"It would mean everything," Padula said. "Catholic League, we lost that chance, but districts would be so much better. Earning that title is worth more to us than anything at the moment."
Reach Andrew Vailliencourt at firstname.lastname@example.org, 810-923-0659 or on Twitter at @AndrewVcourt.