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.)

Be the Referee: Soccer Red Card

By Paige Winne
MHSAA Marketing & Social Media Coordinator

April 16, 2024

Be The Referee is a series of short messages designed to help educate people on the rules of different sports, to help them better understand the art of officiating, and to recruit officials.

Below is this week's segment – Soccer Red Card - Listen

On the soccer field, number 9 is waiting to sub in for number 4 when number 4 commits a foul worthy of a yellow card. The referee stops play to issue the yellow.

On the way to report the card to the home team’s coach, number 4 uses insulting language toward the referee. What should happen next?

Should the referee ignore the player’s insult? Does number 4 get a red card, and then gets subbed out? Or should number 4 get a red card and number 9 stays on the bench, so their team plays down a player?

If you said a red card and the substitute is not allowed to enter – you are correct. Because the substitute was not yet waved into the game, she cannot enter for an ejected player. They must play down a player the remainder of the contest.

Previous Editions

April 9: Batted Baseball Hits Runner - Listen
March 12: Basketball Replay - Listen
March 5: Hockey Officials - Listen
Feb. 27: Less Than 5 - Listen
Feb. 20: Air Ball - Listen
Feb. 13: Hockey Penalties - Listen
Jan. 30: Wrestling Tiebreakers - Listen
Jan. 23: Wrestling Technology - Listen
Jan. 9: 3 Seconds - Listen
Dec. 19: Unsuspecting Hockey Hits - Listen
Dec. 12: No More One-And-Ones - Listen
Nov. 21: Football Finals Replay - Listen
Nov. 14: Volleyball Unplayable Areas - Listen
Nov. 7: Pass/Kick Off Crossbar - Listen
Oct. 31: Cross Country Interference - Listen
Oct. 24: Soccer Overtime - Listen
Oct. 17: Tennis Spin - Listen
Oct. 10: Blocked Kick - Listen
Oct. 3: Volleyball Double & Lift - Listen
Sept. 26: Registration Process - Listen
Sept. 20: Animal Interference - Listen
Sept. 13: Feet Rule on Soccer Throw-In - Listen
Sept. 6: Volleyball Jewelry - Listen
Aug. 30: Football Rules Similarities - Listen
Aug. 23: Football Rules Differences - Listen