By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Saturday’s MHSAA Boys Soccer Finals will provide opportunities for four teams to finish their seasons with the ultimate win, and all of the contenders have had their shares of success over the years.
But two teams are playing to call themselves champions for the first time – and a number of others for the first time in a while.
Division 2 is guaranteed to produce a first-time title winner, with Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern and Melvindale facing off. Troy Athens and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett are recognized powers in boys soccer, but they’ll both be playing for their first Finals championships since the 1990s. And it’s been more than a decade since either Traverse City West or Grosse Ile have taken home the big trophy.
Division 2: Melvindale vs. Forest Hills Northern, noon
Division 4: University Liggett vs. Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, 3 p.m.
Division 1: Troy Athens vs. Traverse City West, noon
Division 3: Grosse Ile vs Grand Rapids South Christian, 3 p.m.
All of Saturday’s Finals will be broadcast live and viewable with subscription on MHSAA.tv, with audio available on MHSAANetwork.com. See below for glances at all eight finalists, and come back to Second Half later Saturday for coverage of all four championship games. (The Michigan Power Rating noted below is derived from a team's success and strength of schedule and was used to seed the top two teams in every District at the start of the postseason.)
TRAVERSE CITY WEST
Record/rank: 18-4-2, unranked
Michigan Power Rating: No. 4
Coach: Matt Griesinger, fifth season (79-21-11)
League finish: First in Big North Conference
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2006.
Players to watch: Caleb Kinney, sr. M/F (16 goals/4 assists); Tony Gallegos, jr. F (10 goals/11 assists); Colin Blackport, soph. M/F (9 goals/10 assists); Blade Kalbfleisch, jr. GK (1.12 goals-against average).
Outlook: It’s fair to say West surprised some people by getting to the season’s final day – the Titans are unranked, after all – but don’t expect the same lack of attention next season as only three starters this weekend are seniors. West had early losses to Portage Central, Midland Dow, top-ranked Okemos and Lakewood St. Edward of Ohio, but is since riding a 13-0-1 run that’s included avenging that Okemos loss with a 1-0 win in the Regional Final and adding a 3-2 overtime win over No. 3 Novi in the Semifinal. Sophomore Josh Hirschenberger also had scored eight goals heading into this week as seven players had at least nine points on the season.
Record/rank: 22-2-1, No. 2
Michigan Power Rating: No. 2
Coach: Todd Heugh, ninth season (154-29-18)
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 1997), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Jason Kemp, sr. GK (0.47 goals-against average/15 shutouts); TJ Renaud, jr. F (13 goals/4 assists); Davis DiGiovanni, sr. F (18 goals/7 assists); Andri Myftari, sr. M (13 goals/10 assists).
Outlook: After suffering its only loss of 2018 in the District Final, Athens has pushed through to its first championship game since finishing Division 1 runner-up in 2016. Along the way, the Red Hawks have eliminated No. 8 Berkley and No. 9 Troy and despite entering the playoffs coming off two straight losses. Kemp made the all-state first team last season, and Renaud made the third team. Sophomore forward Ryan Gruca had added another 10 assists entering this week.
GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS NORTHERN
Record/rank: 22-0-1, No. 2
Michigan Power Rating: No. 3
Coach: Daniel Siminski, sixth season (116-11-13)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference White
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2018 and 2015.
Players to watch: Aidan O’Connor, sr. D (11 goals/4 assists); Jonathan Kliewer, sr. G (0.27 goals-against average/.900 save percentage); Will Patrick, sr. D (1 goal/12 assists), Andrew Kremer, sr. F (14 goals/6 assists).
Outlook: Forest Hills Northern is 45-1-2 over the last two seasons, that lone defeat in a shootout against Detroit Country Day in last season’s Division 2 Final. This is the program’s third 20-win season over the last five, and a number of veterans are hoping to finish their careers with one more victory. O’Connor made the all-state first team last season, while Kliewer made the second and Patrick earned honorable mention. Sophomore Seth Scharich (10 goals/3 assists) and senior Ludwig Tilly (11 goals/5 assists) joined Kremer and O’Connor with double-digit goals heading into this week, and total 10 players had double-digit points. FHN has defeated No. 4 Mattawan, No. 5 Byron Center and No. 15 Gaylord during this run.
Record/rank: 16-3-2, unranked
Michigan Power Rating: No. 28
Coach: Tomas Belba, first season (16-3-2)
League finish: Second in Western Wayne Athletic Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Alhusain Yahya, sr. M (23 goals); Fouad Noman, jr. F/M (23 goals); Alhasan Yahya sr. D/M (3 goals/27 assists); Carlos Huerta sr. M (9 goals/13 assists).
Outlook: Melvindale has advanced from its first Semifinal appearance into its first MHSAA championship game in this sport, with a Regional Final win over No. 12 Parma Western among highlights from the tournament run. The Cardinals have outscored their six postseason opponents by a combined 21-5 and not given up more than one goal in any playoff game. Senior Julian Castillo has played 95 percent of the minutes in net this fall and is giving up just one goal per game with a .942 save percentage. Belba previously served as the junior varsity coach before taking over the program this fall.
GRAND RAPIDS SOUTH CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 21-4-2, No. 4
Michigan Power Rating: No. 7
Coach: Jason Boersma, ninth season (149-42-22)
League finish: First in O-K Gold
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Jeff Herrema, jr. F (22 goals/12 assists); Reese Bos, sr. M (1 goal/9 assists); Nik Schepers, jr. GK (0.80 goals-against average/11 shutouts); Thom DeVries, jr. M/F (13 goals/4 assists).
Outlook: South Christian will play for its fourth title this decade led by a number of players who should be around to start the next one – after the juniors mentioned above, junior Boston Knapp was the next leading scorer with seven goals and five assists entering this week. The Sailors’ best win surely came in the Regional Final over top-ranked Holland Christian, which had beaten South 4-0 in August. Herrema made the all-state second team last season, when South was eliminated from the tournament by the eventual Division 3 champion (Hudsonville Unity Christian) for the fourth time this decade.
Record/rank: 23-2-1, No. 3
Michigan Power Rating: No. 3
Coach: Jon Evans, fourth season (92-6-5)
League finish: First in Huron League
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2002, runner-up 2018.
Players to watch: Max Aston, sr. M; Joe Duke, sr. M; Tony Bogataj, sr. D, Alex DeSana, sr. D. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Grosse Ile has reached the Semifinals four of the last six seasons and will attempt to take the final step after falling 3-1 in overtime to Unity Christian in last year’s Division 3 championship game. The Red Devils downed No. 7 Ann Father Gabriel Richard and No. 8 Macomb Lutheran North on their way back to the Finals, and the only defeats this season were tournament shootout losses to Detroit Country Day and Leland. Aston earned an all-state honorable mention last season.
GROSSE POINTE WOODS UNIVERSITY LIGGETT
Record/rank: 18-2-1, No. 2
Michigan Power Rating: No. 2
Coach: David Dwaihy, fifth season (64-21-7)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Intersectional 1
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 1999), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Stewart Smith, jr. F (20 goals/7 assists); Nolan Ondersma, sr. M (8 goals/18 assists); Sheikh Manneh, jr. F (21 goals/12 assists); Matthew Summers, sr. M (12 goals/14 assists).
Outlook: Liggett was one of the state’s first small-school soccer powers during the 1980s, and the Knights are back seeking their first title in two decades after Wednesday’s Semifinal was the team’s first since 2009. They’ve been building toward this run, with this fall’s league and District titles both their third at those levels under Dwaihy. Liggett eliminated No. 8 Adrian Lenawee Christian, No. 10 Royal Oak Shrine Catholic and No. 11 Bloomfield Hills Roeper during this playoffs. Smith made the all-state first team, and Ondersma earned an honorable mention last season.
MUSKEGON WESTERN MICHIGAN CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 18-2-3, No. 4
Michigan Power Rating: No. 6
Coach: David Hulings, 15th season (251-72-18)
League finish: First in Lakes 8 Conference
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2010), six runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Brandon Fles, sr. D (16 goals/6 assists); Charlie Alfree, sr. F (17 goals/3 assists); Jameson Goorman, sr. GK (0.59 goals-against average/13 shutouts); Isaac VanHoeven, sr. F/M (9 goals/6 assists).
Outlook: Western Michigan Christian also was a force during the 1980s and again during the first decade of the 2000s, and the Warriors will play for their seventh title after emerging from arguably the toughest tournament path these last three weeks. Their last three wins came against No. 3 North Muskegon, top-ranked Grandville Calvin Christian and then No. 5 Dansville, respectively. WMC has given up just one goal over six tournament games and also shut out No. 6 Leland during the week leading up to the playoffs. Fles made the all-state first team last season, Alfree the second team and Goorman the third.
PHOTO: Grosse Ile’s Tony Bogataj (15) works to get a foot on the ball during Wednesday’s Division 3 Semifinal win over Macomb Lutheran North. (Photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)
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.)