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.)
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.)