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NORTHVILLE — Brighton cruised through the district girls soccer tournament, but continuing its state tournament run wasn’t going to be easy.

Senior defender Caitlyn McKenzie wouldn’t have had it any other way, even in the aftermath of a season-ending 1-0 loss to 13th-ranked Grand Blanc Tuesday night in a Division 1 regional semifinal at Northville High School.

Even though the outcome wasn’t what she wanted, it was the type of game that reminds McKenzie why she loves playing soccer.

“I’d take a game like that over a game where we blow somebody out or we mercy somebody,” she said. “There’s no point in playing soccer if you’re gonna blow out your opponent every time. It’s those games that build character and it’s those games that we’ve got to bounce back from. That’s going to show us who we are and what we are on and off the field.”

The unranked Bulldogs came into the game with a five-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 23-0. That included a district tournament in which they outscored three teams, 13-0, including a 3-0 victory over archrival Hartland in the semifinals.

Brighton had achieved what every team desires, playing at its best when the games mattered the most. The Bulldogs were 5-7-3 and struggling to score before reeling off five consecutive victories heading into regionals for the first time since 2017.

“It was unforgettable,” McKenzie said. “I’m really thankful for it, because I think this whole season our team and our girls have known we have this potential, but we hadn’t shown our best foot forward until we got into the postseason or toward the end of our season. It was just really amazing and almost made us more thankful for when we were able to finally reach our potential.”

Brighton might still be playing if Grand Blanc goalie Paige Bilbey was unable to reach one of the three shots on which she made diving saves in the first half.

As the scoreless stalemate continued deep into the second half, overtime was beginning to feel inevitable. That’s when Grand Blanc senior forward Ariana James produced the game’s only goal, lofting a high shot from 25 yards out just over the outstretched hand of goalie Jesse Gerych with 12:29 left in the game.

“When I beat the defender, I knew I just had to get the shot off,” James said. “I got it up high enough and it went in. In a close game like this, it takes one goal to get your team to really get going. We’ve been in situations like this before where it’s been like 0-0, close games and stuff. It only takes one good play.”

The previous night during the team banquet, Grand Blanc coach Greg Kehler challenged James and the Bobcats’ other four college-bound seniors to elevate their level of play. James will play for Alabama State.

“I said, ‘You know what, this is going to be a college game,’” Kehler said. “’It’s a moment where you have to step up and lead like you earned that scholarship.’ She made a big play when she needed to.”

After getting three great chances in the first half, Brighton was unable to generate any dangerous opportunities in the second half.

“I thought in the first half we had multiple opportunities we missed by a half step or an inch,” Carriere said. “When those things happen over and over, you can see something bad is on the horizon. But I did not feel that way at halftime at all, because I thought we had great tempo in the second half.

“As the half went on and the minutes dwindled, we had to get that goal sooner than later, because they were counter-attacking and we were attempting to play possession, at least from my perspective. When I watch the film, I’ll know better.”

It was the first meeting between Brighton and Grand Blanc since April 19, 2018. The teams met 17 times in nine seasons from 2010-18 when the Bobcats were members of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. Brighton had an 8-4-5 edge in those games.

In the teams’ last five meetings, only four goals have been scored.

“It was a tight game all the way,” Kehler said. “I knew it would be. Brighton, when we were in the KLAA with them, it was always a dogfight, really tight close games. The last time we played them it was 1-0 in their favor in 2018.

“At this time of the year, we just told them, ‘Hey, it’s got to be that special effort, players to make that special play.’ We were the fortunate ones who got that special play this year.”

The last time Brighton and Grand Blanc met in the postseason was in 2005, when the Bulldogs won 1-0 in a state semifinal game. Kehler remembers that game, too, because of the large pool of water that teams had to navigate around in the middle of Hartland’s football field.

The Bulldogs will graduate only four seniors from a roster of 25 players. Some of Brighton’s top offensive players are freshmen and sophomores.

“The core is gong to be wanting to get beyond this point, because they’ve felt this point,” Carriere said. “I have a feeling that will carry forward, the emotion and the want to go further.”

Grand Blanc (17-4-2) advanced to the regional championship game for the 15th time in the past 22 seasons. The Bobcats will face second-ranked Northville (17-0-4) at 6 p.m. Thursday. Northville beat Walled Lake Northern in a shootout, 4-3.

Contact Bill Khan at wkhan@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @BillKhan.

This article originally appeared on Livingston Daily: ‘Unforgettable’ Brighton soccer playoff run ends in loss to Grand Blanc

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