By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Grand Blanc soccer coach Greg Kehler knew what needed to happen as the regular season was drawing to an end. He just hoped it would before time ran out on his senior-dominated team.
Exactly half the Bobcats’ games this fall had been decided by a goal. They scored only 32 during the 18-game regular season. Somehow, despite that lack of offense, Grand Blanc entered the District tournament two weeks ago 10-6-2 after finishing second in its division of the competitive Kensington Lakes Activities Association.
But as the playoffs began, Kehler was still waiting to see his players show the necessary edge to turn close calls into close wins. And time was running short – 17 of the team’s 25 players are seniors, and the next loss would be their last.
“What was really so frustrating with me is I’ve been with these guys, some for three years (and) one guy is a four-year guy. And it was almost like I was talking to them and telling them I can’t do this,” Kehler said. “We can talk. We can write up things all we want, change formations, run different plays. But it’s gotta come on the field. They’ve got to find a way to do that and get everyone on board.”
The seniors came through. Their teammates followed. The Bobcats have won five tournament games and will face Utica Ford on Wednesday for the opportunity to play in an MHSAA Final for the first time since finishing runner-up in Class A in 1987.
Grand Blanc (15-6-2) gets a Second Half High 5 amid a run that has to be considered at least a little unexpected. The Bobcats might have a bevy of seniors, but graduated Mr. Soccer Zach Carroll and all-state second teamer Yamann Sahlool this spring. They didn’t add to Carroll’s string of four league titles and probably wasn’t a favorite to reach the season’s final week.
But Kehler's group has found its collective scoring touch with 18 goals during the postseason, beginning with a 7-1 win over Flushing in their District opener.
The Bobcats haven’t been able to avoid close games since – the last four have been decided either by a goal or in overtime – but Grand Blanc has come out on top in each, including 5-3 over No. 4-ranked Rochester Hills Stoney Creek in a double overtime Regional Semifinal.
That's the biggest tournament win on paper, and especially considering the Bobcats had lost to Stoney Creek 4-0 earlier this fall. In the rematch, they trailed 3-1 and only forced overtime by scoring off a corner kick with less than a minute to play in regulation.
But it was how Grand Blanc finished the game before that set the tone for its continuing success.
The Bobcats trailed Lake Orion 2-0 in the District Final, then took a 3-2 lead before the Dragons tied it up again with less than 14 minutes to play. Grand Blanc junior Nick Berklich then knocked home the game-winner with just a minute left.
“A lot of things from that game carried over to Stoney Creek,” Kehler said. “When we lost 4-0, I thought we played well. But we had mental mistakes, and we were playing a different formation than now, and after that game we changed some things. We thought we were better than a four-goal difference against them.”
Kehler, in his 14th season coaching the varsity – and with more than 400 wins combined leading both the boys and girls programs – has never had a team quite like this one. Nearly half of his seniors played junior varsity last season, and he wanted to keep them all although his teams generally go only about 20 or 21 players.
Only five seniors start, but all contribute especially in practices made more competitive by the ability to put out a second team that can run an opponent’s formation and scheme and challenge the first teamers.
Although his defense is a little on the younger side (but with two two-year juniors), the offense is paced by four-year varsity standout Chris Sullivant and three-year player Dominic Mastromatteo. The latter scored four goals last week – three against Stoney Creek and the winner against Walled Lake Central.
Those two seniors also were part of some significant close calls before this fall. Last season ended with a 1-0 loss to Walled Lake Northern in a Regional Semifinal. The 2010 team fell to Sterling Heights Stevenson in a Semifinal shootout. Before those two entered high school, Grand Blanc also lost a 2008 Semifinal in overtime to Livonia Stevenson.
And even that 1987 loss, to East Lansing, was 2-1 in overtime.
But Kehler believes all of the recent close calls are paying off. These Bobcats have found that extra when it counted, an edge they’ll try to keep for two more games.
“I knew we’d be good, but we kinda struggled early. I was kinda questioning if we had what it took,” Kehler said. “Every year with the players you have coming back, you’re optimistic. But … I’m very pleased with how we responded to this season and how it unfolded.”
PHOTO: Grand Blanc’s Ali Mukhtar (11) works to control possession against Saginaw Heritage earlier this season. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com)
Join Robby Elliott as State Champs! takes a look at all of the action from the 2023 Boys Soccer Finals.