By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The most memorable season in Leland boys soccer history did not have the most championship-caliber beginning.
As the team’s annual three-night summer boot camp came to a close, it was obvious the Comets weren’t all physically ready for the rigors of the upcoming fall. Put another way, some of them just weren’t in shape.
It wasn’t a promising sign for a team looking to win its first MHSAA championship in the sport, especially a contender that’s had reams of success at the league and District levels over the last decade.
But a game-changing sign followed.
“As we were ending camp, Cobe (Lund) wanted to say something to the boys. He circled them up and asked, "Do you guys want to win states, (be)cause I do," Leland coach Joe Burda said. “He talked about how they had a short time to get into game shape, and how they weren't there yet.
“The boys came together that afternoon and set their goal for a state championship right then and there. They then spent the next couple of months achieving that goal.”
The MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for October lost only one game this season, to Cadillac during its opening tournament in August. The Comets finished 24-1-3, claiming the Division 4 title Saturday at Comstock Park with a 1-0 win over reigning champion Ann Arbor Greenhills.
Leland had never before played in an MHSAA Final in boys soccer. But over the last seven seasons including this one, the Comets had won seven league titles, six District and two Regional championships.
They finished October with a shootout 1-0 win over top-ranked Muskegon Western Michigan Christian and 3-2 Semifinal victory over No. 3 Kalamazoo Hackett and recently-named Mr. Soccer Award winner Brennan Creek. Leland had entered the postseason ranked No. 2 in Division 4 by the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association.
The Comets finished this season outscoring their opponents 159-19 with 17 shutouts while never giving up more than two goals in a game. The scoring margin over seven MHSAA Tournament opponents was 34-2 (counting only the 1-0 in the shootout win over WMC).
It wasn’t necessarily the offense or the defense that keyed the run, however.
“It was this team, this group,” Burda said. “We were so strong at every position on the field. We had a great target in front of the goal, we had lightning speed on the flanks of the field. We had, I think, the most technical and smoothest trio in the midfield. We had lockdown defenders with an ultra-competitive center back, and then Gavin (Miller) wore the gloves in the back and made several highlight saves to keep us surviving and advancing.
“We had every inch of that pitch covered offensively and defensively, and most of all these guys trusted each other in every position and we never needed a hero.”
Six players earned all-state recognition. Senior forward Lund, junior forward Michael Roberts, junior defender Owen Kareck and sophomore keeper Gavin Miller all made the first team while senior midfielder Nick Saffell made the third and junior midfielder Andre Masse’ earned honorable mention.
Lund led the team offensively with 43 goals and 23 assists, while Roberts (24 goals), Saffell (16, 14 assists), Masse’ (15), senior forward Jack Munoz (19) and junior midfielder Jesus Calderon-Balcazar (18, 12 assists) all scored in double digits. Kareck (five goals, three assists) keyed the defense in front of Miller (0.93 goals-against average).
Senior defender Andy Mosqueda is among others who deserve special notice – as the shootout keeper in the Regional Final, he had two saves in the win over WMC. Sophomore center back JJ Popp, senior defender Colin Satterwhite and sophomore midfielder Wyatt Sirrine were among other top contributors.
“I think the biggest thing myself and the guys will remember is the support we had from the school and the community throughout the tournament run,” Burda said. “We filled both sides of those (Comstock Park) stands, those folks that couldn't make the trip sent us pictures of them gathering and watching on TV, and we arrived home led and followed by police cars and fire trucks, sirens and lights blaring. Everybody came out to greet the guys at the gym. … (it was) something everyone will remember.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19
PHOTOS: (Top) Leland players celebrate Jesus Calderon-Balcazar’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, during last Saturday’s Division 4 Final against Ann Arbor Greenhills. (Middle) The Comets’ Wyatt Sirrine, right, works to keep possession against Greenhills’ Nikhil Shrinivasan.
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 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) 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.)