Hornets' Sorg Soars as Top Coach, Official

October 2, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

WILLIAMSTON – Brent Sorg was a high school sophomore, on crutches a few weeks after knee surgery, when he stepped in to officiate a Lansing area 30-and-over men’s league soccer game although he couldn’t move more than a few feet from his post at midfield.

A dozen years later, Sorg ran matches at the highest U.S. level as one of 24 Major League Soccer referees during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

That he remains one of the country's elite officials after rising so quickly is a story worth telling on its own – but only half of the 40-year-old's remarkable climb on the pitch.

Sorg is better known in Michigan high school soccer as the boys coach at Williamston, which he led to the MHSAA Division 3 Final last fall for the second time in three seasons.

That's quite a combination; in fact, he knows of only one other high-level official, from North Carolina, who coaches a high school team as well. But here's the kicker, pun intended: Sorg, a three-sport athlete in high school, never played a competitive soccer game past the eighth grade.

“It is sort of interesting to reflect on the path of how I’ve gotten there,” Sorg admitted during a Williamston practice last week. “The continuing education piece, surrounding yourself with good people, being willing to try things; that’s why I think I’ve been able to have some success. You don’t always do the cookie cutter approach. The game is very simple, but there’s always more than one way to go about it.”

He’s proof – although surely there are common strands tying together his officiating, coaching and day job success.

Soccer has become Sorg's passion. That, and sharp time management skills, play large parts in his pulling off coaching a contending high school team plus officiating high-level matches during free weekends, when he’s not working 8:30 p.m. – 6:30 a.m. most days protecting the capital city.

All in all, it’s been an eventful 365 days for the Hornets’ leader, who in addition to taking his team back to a championship game also officiated an NCAA Men’s Tournament Quarterfinal and a Women’s Semifinal, and was promoted to sergeant for the Lansing Police Department.

“He works hard at both (soccer) professions and continues to learn,” said Eaton Rapids coach Matt Boersma, a friend and colleague who has worked with Sorg on the board of the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association. “Brent is a great example of hard work. He has put it in in all three of his professions – cop, coach and ref – and has seen that hard work give great returns."

Starting down the path

Sorg did play under a legendary coach at East Lansing, but not five-time boys soccer champion Nick Archer.

Instead, he played junior varsity for the football program led by Jeff Smith, who won one MHSAA title and led the Trojans to two runner-up finishes during his multiple-decade tenure. Sorg also played basketball and baseball – but after tearing a right knee ligament as a sophomore, decided he was done as a high school athlete. He knew then he wanted to become a police officer and wanted to guard his knee for that future.

Sorg’s soccer playing career had ended a few years before; admittedly, he probably wasn’t good enough to play past junior high. But he had friends on East Lansing’s team and became a regular cheering them on – while he also became a regular on the pitch in another capacity.

He officiated his first games as a sixth grader at the request of his club coach, who needed someone to handle littler kids' matches at $6 apiece. That seemed like a pretty good deal. At 16 and 17, Sorg started making a few hundred dollars a weekend at youth tournaments and was part of the MHSAA Legacy Program. He later was mentored by Lansing’s Dean Kimmith in soccer and Rick Hammond for football and basketball, registering to officiate all three sports.

Sorg’s first coaching opportunity came from the same source. He graduated from East Lansing in 1994 and went on to Michigan State University, and a few years in his former club team needed a youth coach. Sorg and a buddy decided to give it a shot – and Sorg found another calling.

He stuck with coaching, moved up on the club scene, did the course work to earn his National "B" coaching license from the United States Soccer Federation, and then coached a season of junior varsity at Haslett in 2000. He also continued to officiate – he’s worked six MHSAA Finals in boys or girls socccer – eventually climbing the college ranks as well and earning his National Referee badge in 2002 on his way to MLS.

Sorg may referee only a dozen or so games in this season, depending on what his schedule allows. For example: He officiated at Virginia Tech on Sept. 27, landed in Detroit at midnight and finally made it to bed at 2 a.m. before starting his coaching and working life again the next day. Work duties eliminated the next two weekends from his officiating calendar.

But when available, Sorg gets games in the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Horizon League and American Athletic Conference, and handled the NCAA Division III Men’s Final in 2013.

“Brent is a great referee. I can't remember if I've ever had a complaint about him,” said Steve Siomos, who assigns officials for the Big Ten and Horizon League among others. “The only thing that held him back to go to the top was his job and his coaching high school kids. Those were the two priorities; referee(ing) was after that.”

Building the program

Josh Ward is the second from his family to play for Sorg. He followed his brother Jake, joining the Williamston varsity for the 2012 playoff run.

Josh knew the Hornets' program probably more than most newcomers, but still chuckled to himself the first time he heard Sorg’s annual start to fall practice.

“He loves this program. One of his quotes at the beginning of every soccer season is that this is the best soccer program to play for, I think he says, in the world,” Ward said. “So he loves this place.”

It’s true.

“I’m pretty honored by it. I say that every day,” Sorg said. “I’m in a pretty good position, with an athletic director and staff that does a nice job supporting us and what we do. We’re pretty lucky.

“(And) we’re so lucky to have people who care about their community and schools. I get comments all the time how our practice fields are better than some game fields.”

Sorg was hired in 2005, with just his club experience and that one year of JV coaching to his credit. The Williamston program had been average most seasons, but with potential for more backed also by an excited parent base that has since contributed to the building of a stadium used for multiple MHSAA Finals.

Whatever coaching skills Sorg missed out on by not playing, he’s apparently learned. The Hornets were 18-3-2 and won their first district title his first season, and have finished under .500 only once during his tenure. The 2012 team was 19-8-1 and lost the MHSAA Division 3 Final 1-0 in overtime to Grand Rapids South Christian. Last year’s team finished 13-4-6 and fell 1-0 to Hudsonville Unity Christian in the Final. This fall, Williamston is 12-3 and ranked No. 3 in Division 3, despite a schedule featuring teams currently ranked in all four divisions, including Division 3 No. 1 Flint Powers Catholic, Division 4 No. 1 Lansing Christian and Mason, formerly No. 1 in Division 2.

Sorg has learned much by watching and listening – be it at local, state and national coaching conferences, or when he’s on the sideline as an official waiting for his college games to start. Boersma noted that Sorg is a regular at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention, and the Hornets’ pregame warm-up includes a drill Sorg picked up reffing Wake Forest. He's also absorbed what he could mixing with longtime mid-Michigan coaches like Archer, retired Eaton Rapids coach Joe Honsowitz, recently-retired Jamal Mubarakeh of DeWitt and Hornets girls coach Jim Flore.

Sorg also has surrounded himself with experience, including assistant Steve Horn, who transformed Lansing Everett into a Division 1 power from 2005-11. Williamston’s 2012 goalkeeper, Charlie Coon, works with the current goalies, and junior varsity coaches Jason Davis and Bruce Collopy have been involved with the program for years as well.

Discipline is a staple, as one might guess with a police officer as coach – although the drive to do things right and to completion was nurtured by parents Rich and Pat, who moved the family to Michigan from Texas when Brent was 10. “It’s about … how you carry yourself. You have to work for it. That’s such an emphasis for me and the program," Brent said. 

Ward said his coach finds a balance between making practices fun and competitive – “which is kinda hard to do,” Ward said.

When a player snuck in a cell phone during the team’s preseason overnight camp, Sorg made him carry each of his teammates the length of the field – something more memorable for the entire team that simply making the rule-breaker run alone.

“And at the end of the day, for me, it’s not always about the soccer component, but developing young men. Making them into good human beings and good citizens,” Sorg said.

Right on time

As Sorg was climbing the officiating ranks, Mason coach Nick Binder was rising as a player, starring first for the Bulldogs before moving on to MSU from 1999-2003. Sorg worked Binder’s youth, high school and college games, and the two now meet as leaders of elite Capital Area Activities Conference programs.

“It’s very cool to see a local guy on TV officiating the highest level of professional soccer in our country,” Binder said. “(And) as a coach, I have the utmost respect for what he’s done at Williamston over the last decade in which we’ve both been coaching. His attention to detail and motivation to elevate Williamston among the area and state’s elite programs is evident, even from the outside. His schedule is always loaded with strong competition with a clear purpose to be battle-tested when the state tournament begins.”

Sorg does indeed load up the schedule to make sure his teams are prepared. The never-stop-learning approach was another trait passed on by his parents, and Sorg practices it in a variety of ways, be it reading up on the psychological component of a game or comparing notes on motivation with peers like Lansing Sexton football coach Dan Boggan, who took the Big Reds to the Division 4 Football Final last fall.

Former Waverly and Haslett soccer coach Jack Vogel told Sorg early on that it would take five years for Sorg to establish his program and 10 to get everything the way he wanted it. 

This is season 11 for Sorg's Hornets. There’s no question he’s reached a desired coaching destination in addition to his lofty standing wearing the official’s shirt.

“When I reflect on that, it’s exactly what it is,” said Sorg of Vogel’s advice. “There’s no doubt that it’s happened.  

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things here. I’m proud of what we’ve built.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at Geoff@mhsaa.com with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Williamston boys soccer coach Brent Sorg, left, shares hands with Hudsonville Unity Christian's Randy Heethuis after last season's Division 3 Final. (Middle) Sorg has been a college official for 15 seasons, including during this ACC championship game. (Below) Sorg comforts one of his players after the Division 3 Final loss.

Retired NHL-er Back on Ice to Answer Call - By Making Them

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

March 16, 2023

The most accomplished skater on the ice during Friday’s triple-overtime MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal hockey thriller between Hartland and Brighton was not wearing the school colors of either team.

In front of a packed house at Plymouth’s USA Hockey Arena, referee Bryan Smolinski was in stripes, just like the rest of his officiating crew.

In his former life, he pulled on plenty of sweaters before lacing up the skates. That happens when one logs more than 1,000 games, tallies nearly 300 goals (274) and close to 400 assists (377) with eight teams spanning a 15-year playing career in the National Hockey League.

So, how did the 52-year-old former star player find himself on the ice last weekend as one of the referees for the pinnacle weekend of this high school season? Good question, even for the man known as “Smoke” during his playing days.

“I was working in youth development programs a few years back and reached out to some Michigan guys I had connections with about other ways to help the game,” Smolinski said. “I called Kevin May just to chat and asked, ‘Hey, how’s your reffing going?’ He said, ‘You know, we’re down a little bit,’ then said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Not a chance,’” Smolinski laughed.

Never Say Never

May persisted, imploring his friend to skate with him during a Fall league at Cranbook in Bloomfield Hills. After eight weeks, once a week, Smolinski had a revelation.

“I’m like, ‘I’m kind of diggin’ this,’” Smolinski said “So, I did all the testing, and the educational part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I got with Danny (DiCristofaro) and his group, and he put me in as much as he could, and I really started to get my feet wet.”

Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench.DiCristofaro is the assigner and referee-in-chief for the MHSAA’s Northeast Hockey Referees Association, and he has seen Smolinski’s growth first-hand.

“Obviously he’s got great instincts and a feel for the game, along with a wealth of experience, all of which has allowed him to climb the ladder quickly,” said DiCristofaro. “It’s been a joy to watch his growth as an official.”

Fast forward to last Friday, and there were Smolinski and May sharing duties as referees during the MHSAA Semifinal with linesmen Michael Andrews and Thomas Robbins.

In between, there has been a learning curve that still continues, but the jump to officiating was not quite as daunting as his introduction to the NHL.

“I was scared to death. My first game was against Mario Lemieux. I’m in the old Boston Garden and now I’m playing against these guys and it’s their job, and they’re out there trying to make a living,” Smolinski recalled.

The emotions were not running nearly as frenzied for his first game as an MHSAA official, obviously, yet respect came in a different form.

“I couldn’t pick the puck up, I was breathing heavily; it was Kevin and me doing a two-man game in Brighton,” Smolinski recalled. “There were a few high-end kids playing, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m dying here.’ You know, there’s no training for that first time.”

What that experience did, however, was revitalize Smolinski in a new way. His playing career is well documented, not only in the NHL, but around Michigan. He enjoyed an honor-laden career at Michigan State University from 1989-93 before joining the Boston Bruins (who had drafted him three years earlier) at the end of the ’93 NHL campaign. Even after his final season, with Montreal in 2007-08, he stayed in the game via men’s leagues, or coaching his son, Max.

Smolinski and his wife, Julie, have three daughters: Ashtyn (22), Jojo (16) and Rylen (12), along with Max, whom dad coached for seven years including during a national championship run with a Little Caesars U15 team in 2019. Max, 19, is now playing collegiately at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

So, for Smolinski, officiating offers a new chapter.

“Reffing brought back ... I wouldn’t say love of the game, because that’s always been there; it’s a different side of enjoying the game now. I have no horse in the race, my son’s off to college, my daughters are doing their thing; I wanted to find something new in the game,” Smolinski said. “I’ve coached, and I don’t want to do that. I found this, and I’ve stuck with it.”

Old College Ties

One of the great benefits of athletics at any level are the friendships made. For two kids who met in their first years on the MSU campus and forged a bond that lasts to this day, it’s amazing how their careers reached the pinnacle and have now come full circle.

Wes McCauley, an MSU teammate, is one of Smolinski’s best friends. After numerous years in the minor leagues, McCauley, like his friend, made it to the NHL. But McCauley made it as an official, working his first NHL game in 2003, when Smolinski was nearing the end of his playing career.

Smolinski keeps watch during game play. Their games lined up on just a few occasions in the NHL, and the two lobbied hard to have McCauley work Smolinski’s 1,000th career game in his final season with the Canadiens in 2007-08. The request, sadly, was denied by the league.

On the rare occasions when the friends did share the same ice, less than a handful by Smolinski’s count, it was McCauley who was forced to rebuff any attempts at fraternization. It’s just part of an official’s edict.

“For both of us, it was amazing; it was just great,” Smolinski said. “I’d say, ‘Hey man what’s up?’ and he says, ‘Can’t talk.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, we talk all the time.’ Again, he’s like, ‘Can’t talk, get away from me.’ You know, it was just business.”

McCauley then reached the 1,000-game plateau himself in 2018 and is still going strong as a regular selection for playoff duties with nine Stanley Cup Finals assignments, including last year.

 So, it should have been natural for Smolinski to go to his old friend immediately for officiating pointers once he joined the ranks, right? Well, maybe not immediately.

“I talk to Wes all the time, but I actually hid it from him right out of the gate because I didn’t want to take his razzing. Eventually it got out, and he was loving it. He started sending me whistles and visors and pants,” Smolinski said, grinning. “And none of it fit, you know, because I’m older and fatter, and he’s so damn skinny. So, I still had to go out and get all new gear.”

Both Sides Now

Having been to the top of his profession, now moving to the other side of that same mountain that his friend McCauley scaled, the respect has grown for those blowing the whistle.

“The preparation for officiating is much more mental,” Smolinski said. “Way more rules oriented. You’re always trying to get away with things that you can as a player; now you have to police that.”

Smolinski has a distinct advantage.

“I know everything they’re trying to do because I’ve done it. I know where you’re going with the puck, I know what kind of breakout you’re trying to do,” Smolinski said. “I have all the instincts, now I just try to stay out of the way and not ruin their game. The most fun is watching the game develop and the ups and downs. For me to be out there and enjoy it with them, that’s the fun part.”

Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.Those who have played hockey at any level have a built-in advantage should they consider the officiating avocation: the ability to skate. Unlike officiating in any other sport, skating is a prerequisite. This makes the pool limited, and almost solely composed of former players. Smolinski offers this advice.

“I prefer sticking with high school because I think there’s more decorum, more administrative structure. Kids are playing for their schools, there’s loyalty there,” said Smolinski. “And there is more accountability. People need report to athletic directors and supervisors. Other levels can be more loosely governed, or a bit more maverick in nature. Moms and dads get involved more, coaches maybe know a little less,” said Smolinski.

He has, in fact, worked a handful of non-school games, and there’s a stark difference.

“I wanted to see what was going on, and I see it first-hand,” Smolinski said. “There are some crazy people and parents out there, and these guys are getting absolutely tortured. I’ve been tortured. There has to be a level of respect for what officials do. I think schools can rein that in a little more. All the guys I’ve met give up a lot of time and work hard because they love to do it and love the game.”

All sports need an assist from school administration and from those who once played the games to keep the officials recruitment moving in the right direction. People like Smolinski can help.

“He clearly doesn’t need to do this, and that’s what makes it so fantastic,” DiCristofaro said. “We need more people who have played – at any level – to do what he’s done and stay in the game as officials.”

Smolinski continues to promote the game in other ways as well. Currently he is involved in the NHL’s Learn To Play initiative, which aims to inspire youth and welcome more families into the hockey community.

“We work hand-in-hand with the NHL Players Association for player development and industry growth,” Smolinski said. “Ages 5 to 9 are introduced to hockey, get head-to-toe gear and instruction, and meet some former players.”

The idea is to have fun first, which can translate into years and maybe even a lifetime in the sport. It’s a lifetime that has given Smolinski so much and continues to do so as he watches it unfold for others from his new vantage point.

PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Bryan Smolinski signals during Friday's Division 1 Semifinal between Brighton and Hartland. (2) Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench. (3) Smolinski keeps watch during game play. (4) Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.