Senior Night is an emotional time for any team as it symbolizes the end of a four-year run, even if it doesn’t technically mark the finish of a season.
For the Lapeer boys soccer team, however, it signaled the end was coming to a run that’s lasted much longer than four years for many of the players.
The core of the team and their coach, Deb Johnson, first joined forces as a recreation team in the Under-10 division, and has been building a remarkable chemistry for the past eight years.
“It didn’t really hit me until our senior night, then I was like, ‘Wow,’” senior midfielder Brian Morris, who joined the group as an 11-year old, said. “I’ve been walking out with them for seven years, and it was going to be my last time walking out with them.”
Fortunately for Morris and his teammates, the end isn’t here quite yet, and they feel it may be a while before it actually comes. The Lightning are 8-4-3 on the season and 8-2-1 in the Saginaw Valley League, and they host their Division 1 District. A District championship would be the first for the school since Lapeer East and West merged to make one high school in the district starting in fall 2014.
The main reason for optimism in Lapeer? Chemistry.
“The benefit of playing together for so long is we know each other really well,” senior center back Gabe Curiel said. “We can predict each other’s movements, and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know basically everything about each other.”
That chemistry started with a recreation team called the Renegades, and continued at the travel level with the Tri-County Nationals. In total, eight of the nine seniors on the current Lapeer team played for Johnson on those teams at one point or another. The other, Pablo Esteve, is a foreign exchange student.
“I had them all the way up through 13 and 14 (years old),” said Johnson, who is in her second year as varsity coach at Lapeer. “Now they’re all back together again for their final year. For me, it’s super exciting and sad all at the same time. They were babies, now they’re all going to play college soccer.”
Not only have the players been competing together for a long period of time, but their positions have remained fairly consistent, as well.
“My coaching style has changed, but as far as their position on the field, it didn’t really change that much,” Johnson said. “They got to understand and respect each role. They could be interchangeable if I need that, but they have a good idea of what they’re good at. They trust everybody to do their job. There’s not one superman coming in to save the day. Even if they’re not communicating (verbally), they’re communicating in a way that only a team that has played together this long would understand.
“They don’t argue with one another. They don’t fight with one another. If someone makes a mistake, they really rally that player back up. It’s nice to watch them work together.”
The thought the team could be special at the high school level was one that everyone had, albeit at different times. For Morris, it was when the players all came back together in high school that it dawned on him. For Curiel, it happened even earlier.
“When I was like 12 or 13, I saw the way we progressed and I saw us building and bonding,” he said. “I had hope and faith that in the future, that when we would come back together for high school, that we could be good.”
Johnson also saw it early on, and when she looks back on old game film, she sees it even more.
“Sometimes I go back through and I see some of the stuff they still do today that they did when they were little, but it’s just better now,” she said. “It’s still some of the foundational stuff I taught them when they were 8, 9, 10 years old, but they do it better now.”
While the seniors – Harry Hirth, Nelson Gaunt, Michael Mejia, Chad Buike, Ethan Fike and Jack Vangel, along with Morris and Curiel – have a history of playing with one another and make up the core of the Lapeer team, they have integrated well with the classes below them. Sophomore Alex MacNaughton has fit in so well that he became a captain in his second year.
But making the program about more than this senior class is what Johnson has preached.
“I have four freshmen on the team, and (the seniors have) all taken them under their wing and really helped them,” she said. “That’s something I’ve instilled in them, that it’s their job to take care of the youngsters. It’s their job to leave something behind.”
There’s no question, however, that the class of 2018 always will have a special place in her heart.
“They’re my babies,” she said. “Not only on the field; I was hands-on off the field. With their grades, I ask for progress reports all the time. I go to their other events, I go to their basketball games. I want them to know that I’m involved as much as I possibly can be.”
It’s not time to say goodbye just yet, and that’s something the Lightning hope to put off for as long as possible.
“I don’t want to think about that until after it’s over, until the last whistle is blown,” Curiel said. “We’re not saying goodbye to the team; we’re saying goodbye to our family, basically.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lapeer’s Nelson Gaunt (8) controls the ball against Bay City John Glenn during a 3-1 win Sept 27. (Middle) Lapeer’s seniors stand with coach Deb Johnson during Senior Night. (Photos courtesy of Lapeer’s boys soccer program.)
For Sebi Roy, there’s definitely been no place like home.
Just as last season started, Roy moved back to his hometown of Clarkston to play high school soccer after spending roughly 1½ years training with Major League Soccer’s Cincinnati FC as part of the MLS Next program.
Going from training with a professional organization to high school soccer might seem like a major downgrade to the average soccer follower, but it hasn’t been the case at all for Roy.
“It’s great to go from a super high skill ceiling where every touch matters, to something a little bit more free,” he said. “I know a lot more people and it’s a great way to get confidence. I didn’t get a whole lot of training in Cincy, and back here I get so much more individual training in general. Getting the touches and getting development was crucial.”
Ever since Roy came back to Clarkston last year, opponents have certainly wished he stayed in Cincinnati.
It’s especially been the case this year, as Roy, a center forward, has been just about unstoppable.
The 6-foot-3 Roy entered Thursday with 15 goals and five assists over 11 games despite being the constant focal point of opposing defenses and playing in arguably the state’s toughest league, the Oakland Activities Association Red.
Against 2022 Division 1 champion Rochester Adams, Roy scored five goals in a 7-3 win.
Clarkston head coach Ian Jones said he hadn’t even met Roy before last year, then heard rumors from others on that team he was coming back in town.
Still, Roy showed up after tryouts had ended, so Jones had Roy go through a personal two-day tryout.
It obviously didn’t take long for Jones to realize Roy was too good to not have on the team, and that was reinforced during the first game last year when he scored a goal on his first touch of the game. Roy went on to make the Division 1 all-state first team as Clarkston finished 16-5-2 and reached the Regional Finals.
Jones, who has professional experience playing in England and has coached for more than 20 years in the United States, said Roy definitely has the tools to be a professional player.
“I’ve never seen anything like him,” he said. “He’s got unbelievable touch. He’s left-footed and right-footed. He’s got vision and strength. It’s fun to watch him, forget coaching him. You find yourself watching him in games because he’s so good.”
Roy’s father is Travis Roy, who in 1991 won the state's Mr. Soccer Award playing for Livonia Stevenson before going on to play in college at Wisconsin.
Also on the Clarkston team this year is Roy’s brother, Fagan, who is a freshman.
Sebi Roy said his dad started him in soccer “as soon as he could walk,” and he has loved it so much that he hasn’t dabbled in any other sport.
Despite already getting a small taste of what professional soccer would be like, Roy said he prefers to play in college and is still in the process of determining the best spot.
Asked if there’s any top professional player he likes to emulate, the answer was a hard no.
“I want to be my own person,” he said.
Thanks to Roy’s production and a core of other talented players who could be playing at the next level, Clarkston earlier this month achieved a program first – the No. 1 ranking in Division 1.
Clarkston (9-1-1) is down to No. 4 this week after losing its first game last Thursday, a 2-1 decision at now-No. 2 Oxford.
There could soon be a rematch, as Clarkston and Oxford are in the same District in the upcoming Division 1 tournament.
If the teams meet again, Oxford will know the main player to stop – and Clarkston will know the main player to ride as it pursues what would be a first state title in boys soccer. (The Wolves were Division 1 runners-up in 2007).
“He’s the most dangerous player we’ve seen by far,” Oxford coach Adam Bican said. “His size, his athleticism, and his IQ is off the chart. He’s so dangerous, and he has one of the better shots I’ve seen. He’s a pure finisher.”
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
(Photos by Keith Dunlap.)