By Keith Dunlap
Special for Second Half
TROY – Jason Kemp has never needed the tradition of Troy Athens soccer explained to him, because he’s been able to experience the sights and sounds of the program his entire life.
Living less than a mile from the school, Kemp, now a senior goalkeeper for the RedHawks, has heard the cheers and seen the lights of the stadium from his house numerous times growing up.
“I’ve grown up watching playoff games and watching league games,” Kemp said. “I can hear the crowd and the goals from my house. My whole childhood has been Athens soccer. Now I’m a captain on the team and get to play in front of large crowds that support us. It’s kind of a dream come true for me.”
Kemp won’t be hearing cheers this year from his house, mainly because he’ll be on the field as a big reason why Athens is producing the positive crowd noise.
Kemp certainly generated a lot of cheers last year for the Athens faithful.
After splitting time as the starting keeper as a sophomore, Kemp was dominant in his first full year as the starter last fall, recording 16 shutouts and allowing just four goals in being named first team all-state by the coaches association.
Kemp is back for his senior season to anchor the net for an Athens team with understandably high expectations.
The RedHawks started the season ranked No. 15 nationally by Top Drawer Soccer and feature a senior-laden roster that has grown up playing travel ball together in the community, which Kemp said gives the team an even bigger advantage to go along with its talent.
“I’ve been playing with most of these guys my whole life,” Kemp said. “I always have thought that was cool growing up playing travel with these guys and now adding high school to it. I feel like it gives us an advantage. A lot of teams, they only have trained a couple of times in the summer before they even start with their high school teams. For us at Athens, a lot of us have been playing together since early middle school years or even elementary school years. It adds a cool twist to our team because we’ve been playing together so long.”
Big reasons for the 16 shutouts Kemp recorded last year were Athens’ stout defenders and organized system, but make no mistake about it: Kemp was also a vital component.
“He’s able to catch balls instead of punch them or tip them,” Athens head coach Todd Heugh said. “He’s got shot-stopping ability and quite honestly, he’s got the confidence of all his teammates. They think he’s good and in turn, I think that helps the way we defend and I think the way he goalkeeps a little bit too.”
Despite putting up terrific numbers as a junior, there is one area Kemp said he has worked on improving going into his senior year.
“Last year, I was very timid on set pieces, especially corner kicks,” said Kemp, who sports a 4.0 grade-point average and took five Advanced Placement classes during his junior year. “A lot of teams would curl a ball in the box, and I would rely on my defenders to clear that away. Now that I’m a little bigger, a little stronger and worked out a lot over the summer, those set pieces don’t really bother me anymore. I don’t have a problem coming out and jumping with a forward and getting hit around a little bit. I’ve grown out of that struggle.”
Athens won Class A titles in 1983, 1984 and 1989, and claimed Division 1 in 1997. Heugh was a senior on the 1989 team.
But a fifth championship has proven elusive. Athens also finished runner-up in 1986 and 2016, when it lost the Final in a shootout to East Kentwood
And the RedHawks still feel a stinging loss from last year’s tournament – they entered unbeaten and ranked No. 1, but were upset in the District Final by Utica Ford, 1-0.
While October is still a few weeks away, Kemp said there’s “a lot of fire in our bellies” among the seniors to try and bring Athens its first title in 30 years.
“This is it,” he said. “This is our last season and a lot of us have been dreaming of this moment for our whole lives. We really want to make this year count as well as we can in the postseason.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Troy Athens keeper Jason Kemp provides skillful play and leadership from the net. (Middle) Kemp dives to thwart an opponent’s shot. (Photos courtesy of the Troy Athens boys soccer program.)
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.)