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.)
Join Robby Elliott as State Champs! takes a look at all of the action from the 2023 Boys Soccer Finals.