Erik Seebeck was a manager for the Gladwin boys soccer team in 2015 when it advanced to the MHSAA Division 3 Semifinals.
That team and its postseason run made quite an impression on the then-eighth grader.
“It was a good experience. I really enjoyed it,” said Seebeck, now a senior sweeper and captain for the Flying Gs. “I learned a lot from being around them and watching how they all responded even when they were down – just never giving up and always giving their all.”
That 2015 team gave Seebeck – and the Gladwin soccer program – something else: the start of what is now a 55-match conference win streak. Gladwin has not lost a Northern Michigan Soccer League game since the conference tournament in 2014.
“We like to set goals at the beginning of the season, and we like to talk about where we want to reach,” Seebeck said. “We want to keep this streak going. We have lots of talent this year, and we’re not having a drop off. We’ve had guys step up and fill the seniors’ positions. We talked over our goals, and we kind of wanted to keep that continuing, to see how far we could make it on that streak.”
Gladwin, a member of the Jack Pine Conference in its other sports, competes in the South division of the NMSL. The league includes schools as far north as Cheboygan and as far west as Big Rapids Crossroads.
Gladwin’s streak includes four straight victories in the league’s conference tournament, which consists of the top two teams from each division at the end of the season.
“We try not to dwell on it too much, but it’s kind of a fun thing for some of the kids,” Gladwin coach Jerome Smalley said. “The graduating class of last year, we had players that played on varsity all four years, and they never lost in the conference. There are some good teams in our conference, and some teams that would really like to end this. But we try not to dwell on it too much.”
This season, Gladwin is off to a 7-0-1 start, which has included 7-0 and 8-0 conference wins against Clare and Big Rapids Crossroads, respectively.
Jonathan Grijalva, a senior forward and captain who is in his third year on the Gladwin varsity team, admitted there’s some pressure that comes along with the streak, but added that it doesn’t define the team.
“Obviously we’d like to keep that going, and there is pride there,” Grijalva said. “But if it ended, I don’t think we’d be horribly upset, because we’re a successful team. And even if we didn’t keep that record going, we just like to have fun, too.”
This year’s team has built another streak all its own, not having allowed a goal through its first eight matches. While the Flying Gs are having no problem putting the ball in the net, having scored 37 goals, Smalley said the strength of the team is its defense and the collective effort the entire team puts into keeping the ball out of the net.
“Our entire team is playing defense,” Seebeck said. “Everybody is getting back, and everybody is helping out on defense. Our four guys in the back (Seebeck, Wilson Bragg, Cal Woodbury and Kurt Landenberger), we’re all communicating great and letting each other know what we have to do. Our midfield is coming back and covering those give and gos. That helps tremendously when all of your team comes back to help on defense.”
The hope now for Gladwin is that this early success on both sides of the field can translate to success not just through the regular season, but into the postseason as well. Because while the Flying Gs have not lost a conference game since 2014, they also haven’t advanced beyond the District tournament since 2015.
In 2016, Gladwin lost 1-0 in the District Semifinal against Tawas. In 2017, it lost 2-1 in the District Semifinal against NMSL North member Ogemaw Heights. And in 2018, Gladwin again lost to Ogemaw Heights, this time in a shootout in the District Final one week after the Flying Gs had claimed the conference crown with a shootout win against Ogemaw.
“The postseason hasn’t been as kind to us as the regular season,” Smalley said.
In order to try and change that, Smalley said he has attempted to beef up the nonconference schedule throughout the years. This past weekend, Gladwin won the Alma Tournament, defeating the hosts, as well as Birch Run, while playing to a scoreless draw against Big Rapids.
“Close games definitely put things into perspective for everybody,” Seebeck said. “We were in the Alma Tournament, and we played Big Rapids and played them to a 0-0 tie, and they had some good players and good passing that kind of opened up to some of our guys what very skilled teams are going to look like when we go into the postseason. It definitely shows you what your limits are.”
There’s a belief among the players that this year’s team can end the recent postseason woes and hopefully catch up to the 2015 team that set them on their current path.
“I’m hoping we can go to state,” said Landenberger, a senior stopper. “I think we can do it; we just have to work together and try our hardest. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but I think we can do it.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gladwin's Jonathan Grijalva (14) works to deflect the ball away from an opponent. (Middle) The Flying Gs celebrate their Alma Tournament championship this month. (Top photo by Max McDonald/Gladwin County Record. Middle courtesy of the Gladwin boys soccer program.)
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.)