By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
LINCOLN – When it comes to the MHSAA record books, Conner McCoy is the real McCoy.
The Lincoln Alcona senior keeper, who previously set the state soccer record for saves in a season, added to his laurels Wednesday night, becoming the state and national leader in career saves.
McCoy stopped eight shots in a 2-0 win over Oscoda to increase his career saves total to 1,191 – six more than Corky Hickmott, who played at Montrose from 2004-07. Hickmott was in attendance to see McCoy eclipse his mark Wednesday night.
“I was super psyched about getting it,” McCoy said afterwards. “I thanked my team so much. Plus, I knew my mom was watching down on me. It was exciting.”
Wednesday’s game was stopped in the second half when McCoy broke the record. The game ball was saved and will later be inscribed with the date he set the record along with his final number of career saves.
“We’re a small Division 4 school,” Tigers coach Tim Munro said. “Something like this may never happen here again. He’s setting a record that’s going to be tough to beat because we’ve got several more games to play. He’s going to annihilate it.”
It was a big night in this small town. Playing before the largest soccer crowd in school history – Munro estimated it at about 1,000 – Lincoln Alcona clinched at least a share of the North Star championship with its shutout victory. That feat, however, was overshadowed by the historical significance of the moment.
And McCoy and his teammates did not disappoint.
“He was really nervous,” Munro said of McCoy. “I’m glad it’s over for him. He played well, getting the shutout, but there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure (shots) on him. Our defense was really good.”
McCoy was quick to praise his teammates afterwards.
“The first thing I did was to thank my team,” the 17-year-old captain said. “I couldn’t do anything without them. They’ve given me so much support throughout this. They were so excited I got it. I think there were a few tears (shed). We’re like family. When we got together that first day (of practice), we knew there was a real connection between all of us.”
One of his closest friends is senior forward Jordan Steiner, who netted both goals Wednesday to bring his season total to 40. He had 47 a year ago.
“I’ve been playing (soccer) with Conner since I was 5,” Steiner said. “To see him go through this, and achieve this, is crazy. Kudos to him. He earned it. He worked hard for it. He’s like a stone wall at the net.”
Steiner said the Tigers were “careful” not to talk too much about McCoy’s chase for the record because they didn’t want to add more pressure on their goalie. Instead, as the record neared, they focused more on the team angle.
“We approached it like, ‘Hey, this is just another game. Let’s do our best and try to get a win,’” Steiner said.
McCoy was unaware Hickmott was among those watching. Had he known, McCoy said he probably would have been even more nervous.
McCoy reached out to Hickmott recently. Hickmott made the trip to West Branch Ogemaw Heights on Monday when it appeared the record could fall that night. McCoy made 18 saves in a 3-2 setback, leaving him three short of the record.
“It was amazing (Hickmott) drove all the way here after going to Ogemaw Heights,” Munro said. “He’s a nice guy. He didn’t want to, but I said, ‘C’mon you’ve got to be on television.’ He was interviewed after the game, too. It was really neat.”
McCoy set the MHSAA single-season save record with 391 as a sophomore. That lasted one year as the athletic 6-foot-2 goalie turned away 401 shots in his junior campaign.
Then, right as he was finishing his basketball season in March, his mother, Sheryl, passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 50. Sheryl coached youth soccer for 14 years.
“She always loved soccer, and she loved to coach,” McCoy said. “She pushed everyone to be the best they could be. She could see the potential in everyone.”
McCoy said he can still feel her presence.
“Before every game I say a prayer and look up to God,” he said. “I know she’s watching.”
McCoy’s father, Tim, and older brothers, Jordan and Chris, carry the torch now as Conner’s most ardent supporters.
“I’m nervous for him and excited at the same time,” Tim said Monday on the drive home from West Branch. “If that was me out there I’d be a nervous wreck. I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”
That’s not to say Conner didn’t experience a few butterflies this week.
“I think (Monday) was the first time I’ve ever seen him nervous, all because he was getting close to the record,” Tim McCoy said. “Normally when he’s out there, no matter what team they’re facing, he plays like he’s in a comfort zone. He’s solid.”
So what fatherly advice did he offer?
“I told him to play his game, not worry about the count, and focus on every shot,” Tim said. “He wants his team to win more than he wants the record.”
“He likes to win. That’s the driving force,” Munro added.
It was a coincidence the record fell in a league showdown with Oscoda. Tim works at a call center there that deals with government contracts. He said his co-workers are well versed on Lincoln Alcona soccer and his son’s accomplishments.
“I don’t think there’s a single person at work who doesn’t know about (the record),” he said proudly. “I tell everybody.”
Wednesday’s win improved Lincoln Alcona’s record to 9-6-2. But that mark is deceiving, Munro said.
“We’re a small school,” he said. “We only have 200 kids to pick from and we play a lot of bigger schools in Divisions 1, 2 and 3. That makes a big difference. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many shots at (McCoy).”
Also, the Tigers, who face Gaylord on Saturday, play the maximum number of games in the regular season and are two-time District champions.
“We lost to Genesee Christian the last two years in Regionals and they went on to win the state championship,” Munro said.
So now that the record is behind him, what’s next for McCoy and his teammates?
Here’s a clue: It’s not about saves, it’s about wins.
“We’re hoping for a (District) three-peat,” he said.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lincoln Alcona's Conner McCoy goes high to stop a header for one of his saves. (Middle) McCoy stretches out to deflect the ball away from his goal. (Below) McCoy slides to the ground to gather up another save toward his national record. (Photos courtesy of the McCoy family.)
VIDEO: WBKB shows McCoy's three saves to break the national record and interviews him after.
It wasn’t long ago that Alpena boys and girls soccer opponents took their long bus rides to play the Wildcats expecting an easy win, and most likely by securing the victory by the eight-goal differential rule, commonly known as the “mercy rule.”
Worse yet, the Wildcats also had to take those trips across the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, as well as northern and southern journeys of two hours, dreading thoughts of experiencing yet another shortened game.
Those expectations started to change in 2011, when Tim Storch, arguably the most decorated coach in the history of Michigan high school soccer, took the reins of the Wildcats’ boys and girls programs.
Storch made the move after retiring from Troy Athens as a teacher and coach of the Redhawks’ boys and girls soccer teams.
Slowly but surely, Alpena’s mercy losses disappeared – and wins over their Big North Conference opponents became reality. Under Storch, the Wildcats went from the cellar to challenging for titles.
But now, Storch is showing some mercy on the Big North – perhaps an early Christmas present. The conference schools won’t see him on sidelines any longer. He’s retiring – again.
Storch is doing so after leading the Wildcats to wins over all conference opponents except Traverse City West. The Wildcats did get a tie this fall against the Titans, one of the BNC schools that regularly makes a deep postseason run, as Alpena stayed in the league title race most of the season.
“When I came to Alpena it was about trying to make the program relevant in the school, the community, the area, the BNC and northern Michigan,” Storch recalled. “We got to that point after some growing pains.
“Early on we took our lumps, and we were mercied by everybody,” he continued. “By the end we were competitive with everybody.”
Storch, who started the Athens soccer programs from scratch in 1981, won eight Class A or Division 1 Finals titles with the Redhawks. He’s near the top of the lists of the winningest boys and girls soccer coaches in the state. The last of his 1,109 wins was a 3-1 victory over Bay City Western during this fall’s postseason.
The Wildcats also beat conference opponent Cadillac in their District opener. They finished 14-6-3 on the season.
Storch will be dearly missed in Northern Michigan, veteran Petoskey boys and girls coach Zach Jonker pointed out. Jonker’s Northmen picked up a victory over Alpena in the Division 2 District Final – also Storch’s last game.
"Tim has had a legendary career as one of the most influential figures in Michigan high school soccer over the past 40 years while having an enormous impact on thousands of student-athletes,” Jonker said. “Over the past decade, Tim helped to dramatically raise the overall level of play in the Big North.
“He is one of fiercest competitors I have ever coached against, but he is also one of the most genuine and empathetic coaches I have ever encountered,” Jonker continued. “I feel fortunate to have been able to build a competitive relationship with him and call him a friend."
Storch’s last game with the Alpena girls also was a District Final, a 3-0 loss May 31 to West.
Storch is proud of what the Wildcats accomplished, noting logistics — unlike in southeastern Michigan — were a big challenge.
“We were an island,” Storch said. “We were big school in the middle of nowhere.
“We couldn’t get together and have any kind of summer program with other communities because they didn’t have soccer, and if they had soccer they were at a Class D or C level that was way beneath what we were playing in the Big North.”
Storch’s tenure, which included six years serving as the Wildcats’ athletic director while coaching, drew accolades from his coaches and athletic directors. In addition to Jonker, Gaylord AD Christian Wilson, and West boys head coach and girls assistant coach Matt Griesinger gave high praise.
They are among those who will miss the successful coach.
“Tim leaves Alpena in better shape than when he arrived, and that is the true mark of a great coach and administrator,” Wilson said. “He has been an outstanding representative of Alpena High School, both as a soccer coach and as an athletic director.
“Tim brought a level of stability and expertise and was well-thought of by players, coaches, and community members.”
Griesinger, who has led the Titans to considerable postseason success and upheld BNC dominance since taking over the West program eight seasons ago, was particularly impressed with Storch’s energy and passion for his players evident in every match.
“Tim is one of the most respected coaches in the state, and what he has done for the soccer communities in both Troy and Alpena is not just commendable, but also something that every high school coach should hope to emulate,” Griesinger stated. “Storch is a stand-up guy, and all of us other coaches in the BNC should consider ourselves lucky that our journeys in the sport overlapped.”
Storch is leaving Michigan high school sports as they face a shortage of referees and qualified coaches. He’s not certain of the exact reasons for it, but he points to time constraints and pressures faced on and off the field.
And, he knows the days of a teacher starting a career, coaching sports and sticking with it are long gone.
“My wife has always said I was a dinosaur,” Storch said with a chuckle. “Back in my day, even if you had family and kids, you still made time for coaching.
“Coaching was part of my fiber — it kind of defined me.”
Storch is quick to point out “soccer coach” was just one of three hats he wore, along with history teacher and friend.
“I’m Mr. Storch to my students,” he recalls telling his student-athletes at Athens. “I’m Coach to my kids, and I am Tim to my friends.
“They are three different hats; I learned how to wear them and how to balance them.”
Storch looks back to all the friendships he’s made around the game of soccer – with former players, fellow coaches, and referees – with excitement for the future.
He is also keeping in mind former players, referees and coaches who have passed on.
“It is kind of humbling when I think back all the years (to) coaches, referees and players I have interacted with,” he said. “We’re all here for a finite time.
“We need to make the most of it and hopefully leave the place a better place when we leave.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Recently-retired Alpena soccer coach Tim Storch, left, talks things over with one of his players. (Middle) Storch, holding the microphone, elevated the Wildcats’ girls and boys programs since taking over both in 2011. (Photos courtesy of Therese Shaw.)