COMSTOCK PARK – Joel Vande Kopple is not concerned with style points.
“Big Dutch soccer,” as he calls it, suited Grand Rapids South Christian just fine this season.
The Sailors made things happen with their length and athleticism, living off set pieces and capturing an MHSAA Division 3 championship with a 3-1 win over Finals rival Grosse Ile on Saturday at Comstock Park High School.
South Christian seized its first state title in six years and the fourth since 2010, featuring three different coaches among those quartet of championships. It was Vande Kopple’s first season with the Sailors after 15 years with Lansing Christian, which he led to the Division 4 title in 2013. His new team solved Grosse Ile after South Christian’s narrow Finals losses to the Red Devils in 2019 and 2020.
“There was just a focus all year long. It was a resiliency that I hadn’t seen before in a soccer team,” said Vande Kopple, whose Sailors finished unbeaten at 22-0-3. “We’ve been down two goals a couple times and they found ways to win, and it was all about getting back here and giving ourselves (a chance) and we did.
“I thought Grosse Ile was a fantastic team. They played great soccer and they made it an amazing game, but it was just one of those things where I think our seniors who have felt that pain weren’t going to let it happen again.”
Saturday marked the fourth-straight Finals appearance for Grosse Ile (21-2-1), which fell to Hudsonville Unity Christian 3-1 in overtime in 2018 before the Red Devils edged South Christian in 2019 (2-1 in a shootout) and 2020 (1-0).
Grosse Ile was No. 2 in the last Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association Division 3 rankings, while South Christian was No. 5.
“It’s crazy – just to get to the Finals one time, let alone three times and face the same team three times in a row, I don’t think that’s something that anybody would ever expect,” Grosse Ile coach Jon Evans said. “I think it says a lot about both of our programs and our successes that we’ve been able to have.”
South Christian scored first on a penalty kick by 6-foot-3 senior Levi DeRuiter 12 minutes into the game. It stayed 1-0 until early in the second half, when senior Logyn Huttenga scored off a set piece to give the Sailors a two-goal lead with 36:24 left in the contest.
Grosse Ile senior Jon Duke gave his team life on his penalty-kick tally with 17:14 left to pull within 2-1.
But with the Red Devils in desperation mode during the game’s final moments, 6-6 junior Sam Medendorp put it away on a goal with 2:42 left.
South Christian lost its top three goal scorers from last season to graduation, but the Sailors found ways to manufacture offense.
“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know how we were going to score goals. And then one of the first practices, Levi chucks it in 60 yards and we said, ‘Ah, we can do something with that,’” Vande Kopple said with a laugh.
“We don’t really have natural goal scorers, but we just find ways to get it done.”
Vande Kopple noted how poetic it was that Medendorp notched the goal that put it away for South Christian.
The coach said that the lanky, animated forward is the biggest cheerleader on the team, encouraging teammates to keep their heads up.
Medendorp said the Sailors’ size was a big threat, especially on set pieces and corners.
“It was very different (this season),” Medendorp said. “Our whole coaching staff was (in) their first year here. It was very good to add new ideas and new people into the program. (Vande Kopple) was very personal, which was very important to me and especially the team, and he just pushed all of us harder and better and was very organized in how he coached.”
Shots were even between South Christian and Grosse Ile at nine apiece.
South Christian senior keeper Luke VanTol made five saves, while Grosse Ile junior Hayden Watson turned away three shots.
“You know, we weren’t the better team on the day,” said Evans, who is 136-8-10 in six seasons at the Red Devils helm. “If we play this game 10 times, who knows how the results would turn out, but today wasn’t our day. They took advantage of their set pieces like we assumed they would, and they put the ball in the back of the net."
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids South Christian players celebrate their Division 3 championship Saturday. (Middle) The Sailors’ Alex Leenstra (11) winds up while Grosse Ile’s Jon Duke (4) moves in to defend. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)