Grayling is not normally mentioned among the contenders for the Lake Michigan Conference soccer championship.
Nor have deep postseason runs been expected.
All that may be changing. The Vikings are making it known they will challenge the likes of Elk Rapids, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix for the league title, with Kalkaska hoping to contend in the LMC as well.
Grayling is scoring goals. The Vikings (7-1) won their first seven contests this year scoring a combined 46 goals in the process. They picked up wins over Ogemaw Heights and Mount Pleasant along the way. They also won an early-season tournament they hosted.
Senior Mitchell Harrington is leading the way with 25 goals and eight assists.
“Mitch wasn’t on the radar last year preseason,” acknowledged Grayling coach Andy Moore. “He came back late preseason and then of course he gets all-state honorable mention last year as a junior.”
As a freshman Harrington played mostly defense for the Vikings. He switched to football his sophomore year. He came back to soccer last season and scored 26 goals and picked up five assists.
Now he has the single-season school scoring record in his sights along with challenging for the conference title and leading the Vikings into the postseason.
Harrington is helping put the Vikings as a team on the radar screen too. They are coming off a 9-12-1 finish last year. They were 8-12-1 in 2021 and 12-6-1 in 2020, Moore’s first year at the helm.
Harrington is widely acclaimed for his speed and ability to put the ball in the net. Opposing coaches know they can never rest with a lead knowing Harrington is dangerous and can make the game interesting with his quick strikes.
“Mitch is a good kid,” Moore said of his senior star. “He’s a class act, and that’s what we tell these kids to be.”
Harrington is surrounded by talented soccer players, Moore is quick to say.
“We have a good supporting cast,” Moore asserted.
Junior Drake Dunham has six goals and 11 assists. Senior Alex Moore has contributed five goals and four assists, and sophomore Brody Cobb has six goals and an assist.
Center back Grant Dunham, also a junior, leads the defense in front of sophomore Jordan Peters, who gained valuable experience in net last year.
“For me, it starts with our center defender Grant Dunham,” Moore said. “And, Jordan is an amazing keeper.”
Grayling suffered its first loss of the season Thursday to perennial champ Elk Rapids. The Elks blew open a 1-1 second-half tie with five goals over the final 25 minutes of the contest. Harrington scored the Vikings’ lone goal.
“We had a learning experience,” Moore said of his team’s first loss. “We’ve got to adjust and move on and get ready for Harbor Springs.
“We’ve got to move forward as a team and get better.”
The Vikings will play next at Harbor Springs on Sept. 12. They get to host both Harbor and the Elks later in the season. They also will play Kalkaska in a home and home. The Blazers tied Harbor on Thursday and are off to a 1-0-1 league and 4-1-2 overall start.
Harrington has high hopes of keeping the Vikings in the league race as he reaches for the school’s scoring record. The bar is set at 42.
“Mitch is aiming for the school record,” Moore pointed out. “He should get it, but we’ll see.”
Elk Rapids remains the measuring stick for much of the league, but especially Grayling’s fourth-year coach.
“Elk Rapids is the team where you want to be,” Moore said. “I always tell the kids this is the team you want to beat and want to compete against.
“Mentally, I think we’re there,” he continued. “I thought last year in the Districts we were there mentally as well, but we played nervous and fouled (and) gave up two early penalty kicks.”
The Elks defeated Grayling 5-2 last year in that contest on their way to the District and Regional titles. Harrington had both goals.
The Vikings, who will host the District tournament including both Elk Rapids and Kalkaska this fall, aren’t really surprised to be off to a 7-1 start.
“We kind of expected it a little bit with what we’ve been building on the last couple years,” Moore said. “We’re excited.
“We beat a couple of quality teams in Ogemaw Heights and Mount Pleasant,” Moore continued. “We feel pretty good about ourselves.”
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 protected] 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) Grayling, including Caleb Baker (2), Ben Gardiner (13), Mitchel Harrington (4) and Gibsen Barnett (10), is off to a 7-1 start. (Middle) Harrington and Alex Moore (12) work to control possession against Charlevoix this season. (Below) Grant Dunham drives the ball downfield. (Photos by Stacy Moore.)
SCHOOLCRAFT — If it is a home game for the Schoolcraft football team, head over to Vicksburg.
If it is soccer, go to Schoolcraft’s baseball field.
Things are a bit jumbled in the sports world for the Eagles this season.
With a new football field under construction and a new elementary school built on the site of the former practice fields, the two teams have been a bit displaced.
“Along with our football field, we had three practice fields that were utilized by a lot of our youth programs, Rocket football, youth soccer and our soccer and football programs,” Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin said. “It’s taken a lot of understanding and flexibility from our coaches, players and our community to make it work out, and it has.”
Meanwhile, all four Eagles home football games will be played at Vicksburg High School.
If Vicksburg is home on a Friday, then the Eagles will play Saturday, including their Homecoming game this Saturday against Galesburg-Augusta.
The Eagles won their only “home” game so far, 33-14 against Kalamazoo United, and take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s contest.
The soccer team gave up its field to the football team for practices and has been practicing and playing their matches in the outfield of the baseball stadium.
For the soccer team, “It’s kind of an upgrade,” Applin said. “The soccer field they traditionally play on, they don’t have a scoreboard, they don’t have a bathroom facility, so we’ve been able to use the (baseball) scoreboard, the PA system, open up the bathroom building.
“The goal at some point is to give soccer a home, and we’re very, very excited about that.”
This year definitely has been challenging for the first-year AD, who credits Vicksburg athletic director Mike Roy with being a tremendous help.
“Mike Roy has been nothing but accommodating to us,” Applin said. “He’s been super helpful to me stepping in and assuming this scenario.
“The communities are so close, it almost feels like home for us.”
Roy said Jeff Clark, former Schoolcraft AD, reached out once the bond was passed for the new stadium last year.
“We had to make small accommodations as did Schoolcraft to make the schedules work,” Roy said. “By moving (Schoolcraft’s) games to Saturday, Vicksburg had to work with our Rocket football organization to make sure games were completed” before the Eagles varsity games.
Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency said his team has been “rolling with the punches.
“These guys don’t care where it’s at; they just want to play football. We’re all taking care of each other. What a great place to be when everybody works together.”
When Jake Bailey heard the team would be playing at Vicksburg, “That got me excited,” the junior offensive tackle said. “They’ve got a really nice facility. I know the school will come out to support us no matter where we are, but it’s definitely different.
“Good thing we don’t play Vicksburg, although it would be fun because it would be both our home fields. The new facilities and being back at our home field at Roy Davis (Field next year) will be really fun.”
Vicksburg is Division 4, while Schoolcraft is Division 7.
The soccer team was “just being a team player” in giving up its own field for football practice, second-year head coach Jeremy Mutchler said.
“For the soccer team to be a team player and get behind the football team will help the community get behind the soccer team as well,” he added.
The biggest drawback is that part of the current field includes a piece of the baseball infield.
“The only odd thing is it is a smaller field, still regulation size, but smaller,” Mutchler said. “Part of the field is in the diamond, so we have to play in the dirt and it gets tricky, especially when you’re trying to throw it in or just play down the line.”
The move has cost the team a few home games.
“At the beginning of the year, we allowed schools, if they didn’t want to play here, we would go to their house,” Mutchler said. “We had to go to a few schools we would have played at home.”
Maintenance supervisor Eric McGehee was instrumental in preparing the field.
“He laid out exactly the parameters, so I was able to send that to all the ADs that were going to visit to give them an opportunity to decide whether that’s something they wanted to help us out for our home games,” Applin said. “A lot of schools were more than willing to come and play us to give our boys some home games. A couple wanted to be cautious and play on a more traditional surface, and we were able to make those arrangements as well.”
In only its second year as a varsity sport, the boys soccer team is still finding its identity, posting a 2-5 record so far.
“We’re a very young team,” Mutchler said. “All juniors and freshmen. This is the juniors' second regular season. It’s all been a learning phase with maturity and sportsmanship.”
Junior captain Jack Curtis said he was a bit “bummed out” when he heard the team would move to the baseball field.
“The first practice, I drove over to our practice field,” he said. “No one was there.
“I drove over to the high school and saw everyone practicing (at the baseball field). I didn’t think a soccer field could fit on a baseball field.”
Curtis said in spite of the temporary move, “I’m just glad we can have some home games this year on Schoolcraft soil.”
As for Applin, he spent much of his career coaching basketball at both the high school and college levels and most recently worked as a salesman for Zeigler. His wife, Meredith, is an assistant coach for Western Michigan University’s women’s basketball team.
Ferency is appreciative of the work Clark and Applin have done to make this season’s changes relatively seamless.
“I’d like to highlight how great our athletic department is,” he said. “It takes a lot of moving pieces and parts to move people around and have a space for everybody.
“I’m really proud of our athletic department and all our coaches and kids for just rolling with the punches.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s varsity boys soccer team, including Nyan Wonders (15), faces Comstock this season on its field in the outfield of the baseball stadium. (2) Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. (3) Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey. (4) Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Headshots and Applin photo by Pam Shebest.)