By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Tying together all four MHSAA Boys Soccer Finals to a common theme is impossible this season. But all four games have stories to tell.
In Division 1, Ann Arbor Skyline is ranked and facing an unranked opponent – but that unranked opponent is the most frequent champ of this decade, East Kentwood. In Division 2, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern is top-ranked and expected to win its first boys soccer championship – but takes on another of the most successful programs in state history in Detroit Country Day.
Division 3 pits the top two-ranked teams at the end of the regular season – Grosse Ile and Hudsonville Unity Christian. Division 4 offers Leland a chance to also win its first MHSAA title in boys soccer – but the Comets must face Ann Arbor Greenhills, coming off its first title won just a year ago.
Saturday's Finals kick off at noon and 3 p.m., with Division 3 followed by Division 1 at Novi and Division 4 followed by Division 2 at Comstock Park. All 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.
ANN ARBOR SKYLINE
Record/rank: 16-4-2, No. 10
Coach: Chris Morgan, eighth season (119-31-37)
League finish: Second in Southeastern Conference Red.
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2013.
Players to watch: Gabe Kellman, soph. M (8 goals, 5 assists); Bryce Schaner, jr. F (7 goals, 1 assist); Oskar Shiomi-Jensen, jr. F (6 goals, 2 assists); Kyri Wixom, sr. GK (0.54 goals-against average).
Outlook: Skyline quickly found itself as one of the few ranked teams left in the Division 1 tournament, helping that effort by knocking out No. 3 Saline in the District Final – which also avenged two of Skyline’s losses. The Eagles have given up only one goal during the postseason – to Warren DeLaSalle in the Semifinal – and allowed 11 goals total this fall. Wixom is a rock in goal behind a defense of seniors Tobin Brenner, Marco Althoen, Omar Hassan and junior Jamie Palms.
Record/rank: 17-3-4, unranked
Coach: John Conlon, 19th season (351-58-45)
League finish: Fourth in Ottawa-Kent Conference Red
Championship history: Five Division 1 titles (most recent 2016).
Players to watch: Giuseppe Calabrese, sr. M (14 goals, 14 assists); Damir Sabanovic, sr. M (7 assists); Uriel Garcia, sr. M (13 goals, 4 assists); Louis Schultz, jr. GK (0.52 goals-against average, 12 shutouts).
Outlook: The Falcons are playing for their sixth championship in 12 seasons and peaking at the best time with five straight shutouts – including one that eliminated No. 7 Midland Dow in a Regional Semifinal. Schultz has saved 91 percent of shots he’s faced, and East Kentwood hasn’t given up more than two goals in a game – and has given up more than one only three times.
DETROIT COUNTRY DAY
Record/rank: 19-5-2, unranked
Coach: Steve Bossert, fourth season (58-28-10)
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Championship history: 14 MHSAA titles (most recent 2011), one runner-up finish.
Players to watch: Kevin Tang, sr. M (15 goals, 9 assists); Gabe Akeel, sr. M (15 goals, 10 assists); Elbert Yi, sr. M (5 goals, 8 assists); Jon Dougherty, sr. GK (11 shutouts).
Outlook: After previously playing in Division 3, Country Day is seeking its first Division 2 championship with an experienced group coming off its second straight Regional title. Additionally, Bossert was an assistant for six of the past Finals championships. Dougherty made the Division 3 all-state second team last season, and Yi and sophomore forward Justin Harris (6 goals, 6 assists this fall) earned honorable mentions.
GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS NORTHERN
Record/rank: 23-0-1, No. 1
Coach: Daniel Siminski, fifth season (94-10-12)
League finish: First in O-K White.
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2015.
Players to watch: Nate Texer, sr. F (25 goals, 6 assists); Jordan Okito, sr. F (17 goals, 13 assists); Jonathan Kliewer, jr. GK (0.43 goals-against average, 14 shutouts); Aiden O’Connor, jr. D.
Outlook: Forest Hills Northern’s seniors were freshmen when the team fell in a shootout in their first championship match appearance in 2015, and they’ve been aiming for this opportunity. The Huskies have outscored their five postseason opponents by a combined 26-3, avenging their lone non-win this fall (a draw against Grand Rapids Northview) with a 3-1 District Semifinal victory. Okito made the all-state second team and O’Connor the third last season.
Record/rank: 27-1, No. 1
Coach: Jon Evans, third season (74-5-2)
League finish: First in Huron League.
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2002.
Players to watch: Brendan Eblin, sr. GK (0.36 goals-against average, 22 shutouts); Christian Drzyzga, sr. M (9 goals, 11 assists); Jacob Sawicki, sr. M (52 goals, 21 assists); Benedek Tanyi, jr M (30 goals, 15 assists).
Outlook: After suffering its lone loss last season to Country Day in a Regional Final, Grosse Ile is playing in its first Final since 2002 and with just an early defeat to Detroit U-D Jesuit. After that loss, the Red Devils went on a run of 21 straight shutouts (including the last over No. 3 Lansing Catholic) before giving up a goal in their Regional Final win – and they came back with another shutout in the Semifinal. Sawicki made the all-state second team last season, and Eblin, Drzyzga and Tanyi all earned honorable mentions. Junior midfielder Max Aston added 13 goals entering the week.
HUDSONVILLE UNITY CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 22-2-1, No. 2
Coach: Randy Heethuis, 25th season (465-79-42)
League finish: First in O-K Green.
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), four runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Kadin Shaban, jr. F (29 goals, 20 assists); Evan Nieuwenhuis, jr. D (12 goals, 3 assists); Chase Rozeveld, sr. F (13 goals, 4 assists); Grant Balcer, jr. GK (0.27 goals-against average, 17 shutouts).
Outlook: Unity Christian won its first Regional title since 2014 and after suffering its lone defeat a year ago in a Regional Semifinal to Grand Rapids South Christian – which Unity beat in the District this year. The Crusaders eliminated the No. 5 Sailors, No. 7 Paw Paw and No. 9 Ludington during this run. Shaban made the all-state first team as a sophomore, and senior midfielder Dan Hoeksema is another key cog offensively with eight goals and 10 assists entering the week.
ANN ARBOR GREENHILLS
Record/rank: 11-8-3, unranked
Coach: Lucian Popescu, ninth season (149-68-17)
League finish: Third in Detroit Catholic League AA
Championship history: Division 4 champion in 2017, three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Zachary Zimmerman, sr. M (31 goals, 9 assists); Leo Fried, sr. GK (1.35 goals-against average, 6 shutouts); Robert Keller, sr. M (1 goal, 6 assists); Neil Bazaj, sr. M (2 goals, 10 assists).
Outlook: Greenhills entered the postseason unranked and with a sub-.500 record, but has outscored six playoff opponents by a combined 22-2 and eliminated No. 6 Adrian Lenawee Christian and No. 4 Burton Genesee Christian. Zimmerman made the all-state first team last season, and Fried and Bazaj also were among standouts on the championship team.
Record/rank: 23-1-3, No. 2
Coach: Joe Burda, ninth season (177-38-10)
League finish: First in Northwest Conference.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Cobe Lund, sr. F (41 goals, 18 assists); Owen Kareck, jr. D (5 goals, 3 assists); Nick Saffell, sr. F (16 goals, 11 assists); Michael Roberts, jr. M (24 goals, 6 assists).
Outlook: After seven straight league, six District and two Regional titles over the last seven seasons, Leland will play for an MHSAA championship for the first time. The Comets’ only loss came in the second game of the season, against Cadillac, and the only goals they’ve given up in six postseason games were two to No. 3 Kalamazoo Hackett in the Semifinal (not counting two penalty kicks in the shootout portion of a 1-0 win over top-ranked Muskegon Western Michigan Christian in the Regional Final). Lund made the all-state first team last season, and Kareck and Saffell earned honorable mentions.
PHOTO: Ann Arbor Greenhills' Neil Bazaj passes upfield to a teammate during last season's Division 4 championship win.
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.)