COMSTOCK PARK – Grand Rapids Christian’s boys soccer team didn’t really start clicking until the MHSAA Tournament began with Districts 3½ weeks ago.
Once the Eagles got rolling, however, they could not be stopped.
Grand Rapids Christian struck twice early in the Division 2 Final against Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice on Saturday at Comstock Park High School and made those goals stand in a 2-1 victory.
It was the first MHSAA soccer championship in 20 years for the Eagles (17-7-2), who reeled off seven-straight wins in tourney play after losing four of their last six regular-season games and tying another.
“Really, (the Eagles began to believe) once we started the tournament. We started getting on a roll, things started clicking and then after that it just started rolling for us,” said Grand Rapids Christian senior Benjamin Kuiper, whose goal with 17:22 left in the first half gave his team a 2-0 lead and proved the winner.
“I felt like after the win against Gull Lake, that was really when we were at our highest and our peak. After tonight, it’s just amazing – it’s great.”
Grand Rapids Christian, which was No. 13 in the last Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association Division 2 rankings, knocked out No. 1 Gull Lake in Wednesday’s Semifinal, 2-1.
The Eagles also took out No. 8 Petoskey and No. 9 Spring Lake in last week’s Regional.
Brother Rice (10-7-4), which was making its first Finals appearance in a dozen years, had lost three of its last four regular-season games and tied in the other entering the District tourney. The Warriors, who were nowhere to be found in the state rankings, punched their ticket to the Finals with a shootout win over DeWitt in Wednesday’s other Semifinal.
“Putting the school back on the map in the soccer sense,” Brother Rice coach Danny Price said of this season’s success. “Not a lot of people, including the press, were thinking about Brother Rice, and rightly so after the last seven or eight years.
“Just so much to be proud of: District title, Regional title. Everything we’ve done this season has been perfect. (The Eagles are) a good team – take nothing away from them.”
Grand Rapids Christian got on the board with 27:32 left in the first half when senior Hans Pruis beat the Brother Rice keeper to a loose ball and knocked it into the net.
Immediately following Pruis’ tally, as well as Kuiper’s 10 minutes later, the Eagles goal-scorers and their teammates sprinted over to the stands on the south side of the field and celebrated in front of a large student section.
Trailing 2-0 at halftime, Brother Rice came out in the second half with much more urgency. The Warriors pulled within 2-1 with 13:54 remaining, when senior Romas Mitrius scored on a header off junior Enzo Bordogna’s free kick.
That proved the only blemish on the day for Grand Rapids Christian junior keeper Alexander Scofield, who finished with nine saves. Junior Henry Allen made six saves for Brother Rice, which was outshot 13-10.
Eagles coach Aric Dershem acknowledged his team went to more of a defensive approach in the second half, knowing that the Warriors were going to turn up the intensity.
“Oh, man, (Scofield) came up so huge today, yes. Coming into this season, he was fighting for the starting spot and he just came up huge every opportunity that he had – even in the Semifinal against Gull Lake, he kept us in the game,” Dershem said.
“A keeper can’t win the game, but they can lose you the game, and he kept us in the game today long enough that we could just hold on and get the win.”
Grand Rapids Christian surrendered only four goals during the postseason.
Scofield admitted he was a little nervous in the second half, but he and the defense in front of him got the job done.
“My coaches like to say, 2-0 up at halftime is the worst lead to have because they score once, they’ve got most of the momentum; they score again, they’ve got all of the momentum and they’re more likely to score again. So we were a little nervous, especially after they scored that first goal,” Scofield said. “But our defense managed to pull through.”
Grand Rapids Christian’s seniors lingered around the Comstock Park stadium to take photos with the championship trophy, which will go alongside the Eagles’ titles from 2001 and 1998.
Kuiper was one of the players savoring the moment, which some may have not thought possible as recently as a month ago.
“Oh, it’s amazing,” Kuiper said. “The past few years, we haven’t been doing the best in the tournament, so it feels amazing to go all the way.”
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Christian’s Eli Leegwater (22) and teammates celebrate during Saturday’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) The Eagles’ Evan Thornton (8) and Rice keeper Henry Allen work to gain possession. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)