Amid Challenges, Union Enjoys Trophy Run

December 2, 2016

By Ryan Portenga
Muskegon Mona Shores athletic director

The last time Grand Rapids Union High School hoisted a postseason tournament trophy was Saturday, June 4, 2002 – when the Red Hawks' baseball team clinched a Michigan High School Athletic Association District championship.

Despite fielding more than 20 varsity sports, the school – nestled among the northwestern city neighborhoods of Grand Rapids – had since struggled in varsity competition more than it succeeded as the seasons passed by.

When the historic City League of Grand Rapids (founded in 1928) folded following the 2007-08 school year – leading to Union's entrance into the larger Ottawa-Kent Conference of West Michigan – there was reason for optimism within the school's extra-curricular programming. Regardless of how loyalists and stakeholders felt about changes to issues such as organizational bylaws, conference leadership and divisional alignment, the conference shift triggered something of a fresh start. 

Yet, since then, the number of eligible athletes within Grand Rapids Public Schools' senior highs has shrunk from 4,500+ (2008-09) to 3,000+ (2016-17), and two of the city's public high schools which joined the Ottawa-Kent Conference with Union (Central and Creston) have ceased traditional operations and nixed athletic programming. Furthermore, Union's football program – the sport traditionally drawing the most community support – has sported a record of 6-74 since the switch in leagues. 

Describing such lack of athletic success as a "drought" might be an understatement.

To therefore face a second-half deficit of two goals against five-time reigning District champion Grand Haven in this year's Division 1 District tournament seemed more ordinary than extraordinary. However, with Juan Zavala – the team's fiery first-year head coach – and senior goalkeeper Jesus Ramirez encouraging the Red Hawks from opposite ends of the pitch, the extraordinary happened.

The game's box score would show that Union's comeback began in the 52nd minute when forward Gustavo Lopez netted a rebound to cut the Buccaneers' lead in half. Yet, it was easy to sense a shift in momentum each time the Red Hawks gained possession – driving deeper into Grand Haven's defense with each touch. Then, with just a handful of minutes left in the tilt – after each team whiffed on a barrage of scoring opportunities – midfielder Serge Mwembo converted a free kick ricochet sent in from more than 20 yards out from teammate Cristian Madrigal to tie the match ... and jubilation ensued. Goliath had not yet fallen, but more than enough had been done to challenge the impossible.

See, even if their rally fell short and the boys were to lose, Union's resilience and transformation was inspiring. Unlike most schools they play, the Red Hawks' players are divided during the school day – with 13 attending Union High School and seven attending City High a few miles away downtown – making practices difficult to organize and administer. Then consider the fact that 19 of their 21 athletes are native Spanish-speaking student-athletes – making communication tough between opponents and officials at times.

Finally, while once plagued by an egregious episode from just a few short years before – when one of its players struck an official in the face after receiving a red card – this season’s team had amassed only a handful of yellow cards all season and no red cards. Sure, Union enjoyed a nice following of fans, but there also were plenty of others (perhaps unbeknownst to the team) rooting them on.

"Sure, our team faces challenges," Zavala admits, "but their approach has been nothing short of inspiring. Just like we enjoy maintaining possession and attacking our opponents on the field, we like to attack obstacles off of the field as well."

Although plenty was overcome off of the field and within the culture of the program, an on-field obstacle reared its head as the season came to a close ... the team was having trouble scoring. During the final week of regular-season play, Union dropped a game 2-0 to league foe Muskegon Mona Shores and then lost to eventual conference champion Jenison, 3-0.

Although some of the offensive woes were due to injuries, there was plenty to worry about heading into the District tournament.

"Our kids are resilient," the rookie head coach explained. "They know that our program has fallen short in past years, but they also understand their potential and capabilities. Even though we faltered a bit at the end of the season, we entered the tournament with high expectations."

High expectations that had now come down to penalty kicks after two scoreless 10-minute overtime sessions against a program from Grand Haven that hadn't lost a District championship game in half a decade.

"Unlike past years where heads have dropped and attitudes would get the better of us in such situations, our kids embraced the opportunity," Zavala continued.

Rafa Paz (the team's incredible talented junior midfielder), Luis Madrigal, and Gustavo Perez each scored to open the penalty kick session. Then, not only did goalie Jesus Ramirez make a save, but the senior buried his shot in the back of the net to send the contest into a sudden-death shootout.

"I've walked our hallways," says Zavala, who played at both Union and nearby Kenowa Hills High School more than a decade ago when he was in school. "I know what our kids face, what they've gone through, facing the seemingly impossible at times. I wasn't even sure we would have a team or a program just a few months before – and here we are in a sudden-death shootout to win a District championship against a program like Grand Haven has. Win or lose, it had been an incredible journey with these boys." 

Following an uncharacteristic Buccaneers miss in the sixth shot of the shootout, Union sophomore Wilson Rodas approached the ball amid an eerie silence surrounding the field – a silence that erupted into triumphant jubilation a split-second later as the soccer ball met the back of the net. After more than a decade without an addition, Union High School would now have a new "Mitten" for its trophy case back home on Tremont Boulevard.

"I'm still not sure what to think or how to react," concluded Zavala. "It is so difficult to describe that moment – when Rodas' shot slipped through to the net. I'm just so incredibly proud of our kids and happy for our community. This is why we do what we do... it's all for them. There is no substitute for high school sports."

Slaying Goliath does not happen every day or even very often – especially in high school sports. More often than not, the game within our games features the haves versus the have-nots. Yet, every so often – especially when David slays Goliath – we are reminded of all that is good and pure within our business ... the business of school communities, togetherness and defying overwhelming odds.

Union went on to fall, 4-0, to Traverse City West in their Division 1 Regional Semifinal.

PHOTO: Grand Rapids Union celebrates the school’s first District championship in any sport since 2002. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Portenga.)

Working Together, with Neighbor's Help, Schoolcraft Teams Making Selves at 'Home'

By Pam Shebest
Special for

September 19, 2023

SCHOOLCRAFT — If it is a home game for the Schoolcraft football team, head over to Vicksburg.

Southwest CorridorIf it is soccer, go to Schoolcraft’s baseball field.

Things are a bit jumbled in the sports world for the Eagles this season.

With a new football field under construction and a new elementary school built on the site of the former practice fields, the two teams have been a bit displaced.

“Along with our football field, we had three practice fields that were utilized by a lot of our youth programs, Rocket football, youth soccer and our soccer and football programs,” Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin said. “It’s taken a lot of understanding and flexibility from our coaches, players and our community to make it work out, and it has.”

Meanwhile, all four Eagles home football games will be played at Vicksburg High School.

If Vicksburg is home on a Friday, then the Eagles will play Saturday, including their Homecoming game this Saturday against Galesburg-Augusta.

The Eagles won their only “home” game so far, 33-14 against Kalamazoo United, and take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s contest.

The soccer team gave up its field to the football team for practices and has been practicing and playing their matches in the outfield of the baseball stadium.

For the soccer team, “It’s kind of an upgrade,” Applin said. “The soccer field they traditionally play on, they don’t have a scoreboard, they don’t have a bathroom facility, so we’ve been able to use the (baseball) scoreboard, the PA system, open up the bathroom building.

Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. “The goal at some point is to give soccer a home, and we’re very, very excited about that.”

This year definitely has been challenging for the first-year AD, who credits Vicksburg athletic director Mike Roy with being a tremendous help.

“Mike Roy has been nothing but accommodating to us,” Applin said. “He’s been super helpful to me stepping in and assuming this scenario.

“The communities are so close, it almost feels like home for us.”

Roy said Jeff Clark, former Schoolcraft AD, reached out once the bond was passed for the new stadium last year.

“We had to make small accommodations as did Schoolcraft to make the schedules work,” Roy said. “By moving (Schoolcraft’s) games to Saturday, Vicksburg had to work with our Rocket football organization to make sure games were completed” before the Eagles varsity games.

Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency said his team has been “rolling with the punches.

“These guys don’t care where it’s at; they just want to play football. We’re all taking care of each other. What a great place to be when everybody works together.”

When Jake Bailey heard the team would be playing at Vicksburg, “That got me excited,” the junior offensive tackle said. “They’ve got a really nice facility. I know the school will come out to support us no matter where we are, but it’s definitely different.

“Good thing we don’t play Vicksburg, although it would be fun because it would be both our home fields. The new facilities and being back at our home field at Roy Davis (Field next year) will be really fun.”

Vicksburg is Division 4, while Schoolcraft is Division 7.

Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey.The soccer team was “just being a team player” in giving up its own field for football practice, second-year head coach Jeremy Mutchler said.

“For the soccer team to be a team player and get behind the football team will help the community get behind the soccer team as well,” he added.

The biggest drawback is that part of the current field includes a piece of the baseball infield.

“The only odd thing is it is a smaller field, still regulation size, but smaller,” Mutchler said. “Part of the field is in the diamond, so we have to play in the dirt and it gets tricky, especially when you’re trying to throw it in or just play down the line.”

The move has cost the team a few home games.

“At the beginning of the year, we allowed schools, if they didn’t want to play here, we would go to their house,” Mutchler said. “We had to go to a few schools we would have played at home.”

Maintenance supervisor Eric McGehee was instrumental in preparing the field.

“He laid out exactly the parameters, so I was able to send that to all the ADs that were going to visit to give them an opportunity to decide whether that’s something they wanted to help us out for our home games,” Applin said. “A lot of schools were more than willing to come and play us to give our boys some home games. A couple wanted to be cautious and play on a more traditional surface, and we were able to make those arrangements as well.”

In only its second year as a varsity sport, the boys soccer team is still finding its identity, posting a 2-5 record so far.

Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job.“We’re a very young team,” Mutchler said. “All juniors and freshmen. This is the juniors' second regular season. It’s all been a learning phase with maturity and sportsmanship.”

Junior captain Jack Curtis said he was a bit “bummed out” when he heard the team would move to the baseball field.

“The first practice, I drove over to our practice field,” he said. “No one was there.

“I drove over to the high school and saw everyone practicing (at the baseball field). I didn’t think a soccer field could fit on a baseball field.”

Curtis said in spite of the temporary move, “I’m just glad we can have some home games this year on Schoolcraft soil.”

As for Applin, he spent much of his career coaching basketball at both the high school and college levels and most recently worked as a salesman for Zeigler. His wife, Meredith, is an assistant coach for Western Michigan University’s women’s basketball team.

Ferency is appreciative of the work Clark and Applin have done to make this season’s changes relatively seamless.

“I’d like to highlight how great our athletic department is,” he said. “It takes a lot of moving pieces and parts to move people around and have a space for everybody.

“I’m really proud of our athletic department and all our coaches and kids for just rolling with the punches.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s varsity boys soccer team, including Nyan Wonders (15), faces Comstock this season on its field in the outfield of the baseball stadium. (2) Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. (3) Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey. (4) Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Headshots and Applin photo by Pam Shebest.)