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@example.com 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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)