Soccer games in Michigan have long consisted of two 40-minute halves.
Not so until recently for games involving Ogemaw Heights. Historically the contest was often over at halftime due the MHSAA 8-goal differential rule. Sadly, the Falcons had become quite accustomed to getting back on the bus after the first 40 minutes.
Jack Vliet, the Falcons’ first-year athletic director, and Tom Zaske, the fourth-year boys soccer coach, are way too familiar with the rule widely known as a “mercy.” They were well aware of the program’s suffering before they got officially involved.
Zaske’s first experiences came as a father of a freshman soccer player, and then as the JV coach. Vliet’s a first awareness was from being a member of the community.
“It’s been a tough road for the soccer program,” Vliet said. “The adversity these kids have faced ... and now they’re coming out on top.
“They’re adjusting on the fly,” he continued. “What a great job the coaches have done, and now we’re experiencing community buy-in.”
Now, the Falcons have the potential to win their third District title in the last four years on Saturday. They are facing Clare, a team they have defeated 8-0 and 7-0 this year. The game is at Clare, and the winner advances to play Elk Rapids in a Regional Semifinal on Oct. 28.
Elk Rapids, which is headed for its third-straight Regional appearance, has a storied past with multiple MHSAA Finals runs and two Division 4 championships. The Elks possess the number one Michigan Power Rating (MPR) in D3 this year. They are 17-2-4 and won the Lake Michigan conference title again this year. They also have taken on strong D1 and D2 teams, including this year’s Big North Conference champion Traverse City West and runner-up Petoskey. The Elks picked up a 4-0 win over Petoskey after a 0-0 tie with the Northmen the first time they met.
Ogemaw’s history of mercy losses was the greatest when the Falcons were in the Big North. Now the Falcons play in the Northern Michigan Soccer League. No mercy losses this year. In fact, they suffered only one defeat, 2-1, at the hands of McBain Northern Michigan Christian. The Falcons erased the memory of the league loss with a 4-0 win over NMC earlier this month, and they have eight mercy wins this season.
Despite having the most wins in school history and a record of 16-1-2, Ogemaw hasn’t cracked the rankings yet. They are 13th in the MPR index used to determine seeding of the top two teams at the District level. The index is based on a team's success and strength of schedule, according to results posted to the MHSAA Website and including games against other MHSAA Tournament teams.
Zaske has his players fearing not what may be ahead. He’ll be thrilled if Ogemaw gets an opportunity to take on Elk Rapids next week. Elk Rapids’ past is what Vliet wants in Ogemaw’s future.
“We believe it doesn’t matter who you play,” Zaske stressed. “We tell the kids ‘if you can play your game, you can compete with anybody.’
“We’re going to prepare that way,” he continued. “We’ll try to play our game better than they (Elks) can defend it.”
Zaske’s four-years stint with the Falcons’ varsity was preceded by a couple of years with the JV team. He’s also been involved as a coach of his players during youth league seasons.
He immediately began to create a winning culture with the goal of someday winning an MHSAA Finals championship.
“We set out to get rid of the stigma of getting on the bus and only playing 40 minutes,” Zaske said. “Those kids were so used to it. It was a culture change.
“I keep kids focused on playing our game and playing our game well,” he continued.
Senior leadership has been a key to the Falcons’ success this year. Senior goalie and captain Jake Bonus has nine shutouts, bolstered by the midfield and a strong defense led by Joe Mulky.
Jack Juarez, a senior and three-year starter, led the team in assists the past three seasons. He has scored 13 goals and recorded 19 assists this fall. Senior Lucas Courtemanche is the leading goal scorer, with 21. Wyatt Veltman, another senior, is next with 20 goals, followed by junior Isaac Divine with 17.
If Ogemaw doesn’t get to the Finals this year, the Falcons will strive for them again next fall. The program’s development may be ahead of schedule.
“The kids really worked hard all summer, and we had things to look forward to,” Zaske noted. “I think we’re in a better place than I thought we’d be in four years.
“The kids see what hard work, teamwork does,” he continued. “It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. They know they need to put in the time and put in the effort. There’s a goal in mind.”
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.
PHOTO: (Top) Ogemaw Heights’ Trevor Brown (27) maintains control of the ball against Tawas this season. (Photo by Mike Juarez.)
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.)