By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Hudsonville Unity Christian and Detroit Country Day had played 95 minutes Friday afternoon. Bursts of speed were in short supply.
Crusaders junior Maddy VanDyke had one left – she made it, and the next few seconds felt like slow motion.
That’s how she saw her go-ahead goal with 4 minutes and 12 seconds left in the second overtime of the Division 3 Final at Michigan State University, a goal that resulted in Unity Christian claiming a 2-1 victory and its ninth MHSAA championship in a rematch of last season’s title decider.
Senior Bethany Balcer found VanDyke on a long pass as she sprinted toward the goal with two Country Day defenders in tow. VanDyke’s shot was deflected by the Yellowjackets’ keeper – but then slowly rolled toward and past the goal line as the Country Day defenders just missed catching up.
“It was perfectly placed that I could sprint and have a burst of energy, in order to go to the goal. As soon as I realized it was me and the keeper, it kinda got a little tense,” VanDyke said. “As soon as it crossed the line … (it was) just the feeling of accomplishment and amazement, joy.
“Coach just kept saying to play the corners and cross them in … and as soon as the ball was played to the corner, I feel like everyone, whether outside forward or outside mid, we got that burst of energy to want that goal and want to see that scoreboard at two to one.”
Unity Christian’s run has been nearly unprecedented. The Crusaders have won three titles in four seasons, with all nine coming over the last 11 seasons. Only Madison Heights Bishop Foley, with 12, has won more girls soccer championships.
Overtime couldn’t have been a thought for anyone who watched the first 20 minutes of regulation. Like it did for what had to be at least 90 of the 100 minutes total, Unity Christian dominated possession – until Country Day sophomore Lauren Alshab shook two defenders and launched the Yellowjackets’ first shot of the game, drilling it 21 yards and over the Unity Christian keeper’s outstretched arms into the far top corner of the net.
Still, the Crusaders finished with 31 shots including 15 on goal. They kept firing from just about every angle unsuccessfully until junior Abby Neinhuis took a pass deep in the box with 16:55 left in regulation and punched the equalizer into the net.
Unity Christian got off seven more shots during regulation and five during the first 10-minute overtime. VanDyke’s winner was one of only two shots by either team during the final extra period.
“I’m sure the fans were on the edge of their seats. We were on the edge of our seats,” Unity Christian coach Randy Heethuis said. “The thing with Country Day, they won their last two games on penalty kicks. We really didn’t want to go there. That experience, a very good goalkeeper, not that we weren’t confident in going and doing that, but we were going to throw everything at them to see if we could get that game winner, and lo and behold we did.
“You saw a girl (VanDyke) that played 80 minutes, and she ran away from the defenders there and found a way to will it past their keeper.”
Indeed, Country Day had advanced with shootout wins over Grosse Ile in the Regional Final and Flint Powers Catholic in the Semifinal.
Sophomore keeper Isabel Nino had 13 saves as she and her crew of defenders – among them senior Jenna Staudt, sophomores Olivia Heppard and Dagny Hill, junior Naomi Hill and senior Libby Ronchetto dropping back from the midfield – repeatedly turned back runs by Unity Christian forwards who seemed to have at least a few inches of height on most of them.
“We came in as an underdog. … Our legs are gone. There’s no doubt they’re the better team, and they won the game, but I’m very proud of my athletes and everything they gave on the field,” Country Day coach Bob Bukari said. “We were just a few minutes away from going to PKs again, and I think we would’ve won them because our goalkeeper is outstanding in PKs.”
VanDyke said scoring the title-winning goal was an honor, and thanked those who have supported her during a school year that began with significant heartbreak. Her father Rod, a teacher and the girls golf coach at Grand Rapids South Christian, died Oct. 7 after he was struck by a car while riding his bike.
He too had experienced an MHSAA championship, having led the Sailors to the Lower Peninsula Division 3 golf title in 2009.
“(I'm) just wishing that I had my dad in the stands, but I know it can’t be like that,” VanDyke said. “But I know he’s watching me, and I have a lot of people supporting me, and that’s what gets me through it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Unity Christian’s Maddy VanDyke (14) celebrates her go-ahead goal during Friday’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Unity’s Lauren Orr (4) and Country Day’s Hannah Hansen work to gain possession.