By Greg Chrapek
Special to Second Half
TROY – When looking for the blue print to build a high school soccer program, Ann Arbor Skyline coach Chris Morgan would be the man to see.
In four years, Morgan guided Skyline from a team with no seniors that won eight games to the summit of soccer excellence in the state of Michigan.
Morgan and his Skyline team reached the pinnacle Saturday when the Eagles defeated Bloomfield Hills 1-0 to win the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship at Troy Athens High School.
“Every year we took a step in the right direction,” Morgan said, “and this is the coronation.”
To win its first title, Skyline needed a combination of strong defense and a timely goal as the Final was a defensive struggle from start to finish with scoring opportunities few and far between.
Senior Josh Carn-Saferstein is one of the leaders of the Skyine defense and one of seven seniors who were on the school’s first varsity as freshmen and have witnessed the program’s steady rise.
“This is just an amazing feeling,” Carn-Saferstein said. “I was one of the freshmen on the varsity the first year we had a team. We just had juniors, sophomores and freshmen that year. I think it took a little time for our program to find its identity.
“The players change but all of coaches stress the same things, and this year we all made it happen.”
The shutout was the third of the postseason for Skyline, which allowed a total of four goals in its seven tournament games.
The defensive tone was set during the first half as the teams produced just one scoring opportunity apiece.
Skyline opened the second half with a pair of scoring chances. Junior Alec Lasinski, who led the team with 32 goals this season, almost broke the deadlock when he came in on a breakaway – only to be stopped by Bloomfield Hills keeper Griffin Hamel.
Moments later Skyline’s Nick Russo sent a hard shot just over the crossbar.
Bloomfield Hills’ best scoring opportunity came with 22 minutes remaining, but Alex Joneson had his free kick caught by Skyline goalkeeper Cameron Lekas.
The scoring drought finally came to an end with 19:13 remaining. Lasinski and Lawrence Mullen worked a two-man game in front of the Bloomfield Hills goal. A hand ball was called, and Mullen was tabbed by Morgan to take the penalty kick.
Mullen sent a hard shot low on the ground and with just enough juice to make it past the keeper for what proved to be the game-wining goal.
“We have three players who can step up and take the penalty kick, and I am comfortable with all three,” Morgan said. “I picked Lawrence, and I knew he would do fine. He strikes a mean ball. We knew he would go hard and place the ball well.”
Mullen did just that and the result was all Skyline needed to grab the lead.
“I just concentrated on placement,” Mullen said. “It was pretty scary. I hit a hard shot, and I thought the goalie got a hand on it. But it made it in.”
Mullen also had all the confidence of his teammates.
“When Coach had Lawrence take it, I knew he would make it,” Lasinski said. “The penalty was called on me so I knew I couldn’t take the shot. That is what coach said. Lawrence is an amazing player, and I had faith in him. The whole team had faith in him.”
With the lead, the Eagles turned the game over to its defensive unit even more. The Skyline defense did the job, as Bloomfield Hills was unable to get a high-quality shot on goal.
For Bloomfield Hills, in its first season as the school opened this fall (after a merger by Lahser and Andover), the loss ended a strong defensive run of its own during this year’s tournament.
“We gave it everything we had,” Black Hawks coach Dougie Macaulay said. “We never gave them a clear-cut chance.”
Penalty kicks proved to be one of the few ways teams were able to put the ball in the net against Bloomfield Hills this postseason.
“I’m very proud of my team,” Macaulay said. “We gave up only one goal in open play in seven playoff games. Two of the other goals we gave up were on penalty kicks. I’m very, very proud of the boys, and we had a fantastic season.”
The Black Hawks also had to play most of the match without standout defensive player Jahza Klochco-Koo, who left with an injury in the first half and did not return.
With the win, Skyline ended the season 21-1-5. After winning its first District title in boys soccer last year, the Eagles completed the final two steps and clinched the school’s first MHSAA Finals title in any sport.
“This is just amazing,” Lasinski said. “It feels amazing. To have all of our fans here and supporting us, this is very special.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Skyline players celebrate their first MHSAA championship in any sport. (Click to see more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.) (Middle) Skyline’s Alec Lasinski (9) battles Bloomfield Hills’ Trevor Drew for the ball Saturday. (Middle photo by Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)