Tight-Knit Imlay City Making Childhood Dreams Reality Together

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

September 2, 2021

Watching the Imlay City boys soccer team fluidly move the ball around the field, one can’t help but notice the players have a connection built from plenty of time on the pitch together.

The majority of last year’s team, which advanced to a Division 2 Regional Final, is back, and the majority of that group is concentrated in the junior class. Several of those returning players also play club ball together at Sporting Michigan.

But it goes back further than that.

“I had all these kids back when they were 10 years old playing for San Marino,” Imlay City coach Luis Hernandez said, referring to the team’s earliest club roots. 

But that’s not far enough back.

“We’ve been playing since we were little, probably like 5 years old,” said junior forward Sergio Galiana. “We all ended up playing in AYSO in Imlay City, but we would play in the trailer parks a lot, too. We formed a group that pretty much liked playing, and we were just playing for fun.”

All of that time together has already paid off on the field, as last year’s Spartans matched the program’s deepest-ever postseason run, perhaps earlier than they had anticipated. But now they want more, and everyone in the program believes they have the team – and teamwork – capable of doing it.

“We’re really excited,” junior midfielder Giovanni Torres said. “I feel like we’ve got a better team than last year. Last year, we had a great team, but this year, we have a lot of talent and I feel like we’re just a better team overall. We’re trying to go states (Semifinals) this year since we have such a good team. But first, we have to go step by step.”

The Spartans have started the season 8-1-1, with the one loss coming in their own tournament against Berkley, a Division 1 team that was unbeaten through its first eight games and had allowed just two goals. 

Imlay City has picked up where it left off after winning the program’s first District title since 2014. Hernandez said about 90 percent of his team is back from last year’s squad, and that includes 13 juniors, seven of whom are starters. Among that group are Galiana, a second-team all-state selection, and midfielder Edson Zepeda, an honorable mention all-state pick.

“We have a lot of players coming back, and it looks like it’s going to be a good season for us,” Hernandez said. “But we still have to work for it. As we are improving, other schools are also.”

Hernandez is entering his 11th season as head coach at Imlay City, but his time with the program goes back to his playing days, when he was on the first team in school history. He can appreciate how far the program has come, because he’s lived it.

Imlay City soccer“Back then, the team was just pure heart and wanted to play soccer at all costs,” said Hernandez, who graduated from the school in 2003. “Rob Schwalbe, he fought tooth and nail so we could start a program here. He was really passionate about it and still is. Every time Coach Schwalbe shows up at some of our games, I always introduce him to the new kids as the father of the program. He was the one that started it all, and without him, we couldn’t have done it.”

When Hernandez came back to the program in the late 2000s as an assistant, he knew there was a unique opportunity to build something special in Imlay City.

“This is a really enriched community; it’s really diverse,” Hernandez said. “There are a lot of Hispanic kids here, and since they are born, they’re playing soccer. It’s in their blood. Their parents played, now the kids are playing. It’s something that’s really in their blood.”

This current group embodies that, having fallen in love with the game in its purest form. 

“I remember back then, I was like in elementary school, we had a street we lived by and my brother would take me out with his friends and we would play,” Torres said. “That’s where they taught me to play soccer and stuff, where I got better. I would fall down but get back up. A lot of older guys would play with us. It wasn’t a really big area, but that really helped us out; we got more technical.”

Those skills have been refined over the years in more organized settings, and while those who have been around this current group could see special things on the horizon, this past year’s run came quicker than many anticipated.

“It was really a surprise for us to make it that far,” Galiana said. 

The run ended with a 7-1 loss against Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, but it offered some valuable experience and lessons for the young Spartans, including the need to capitalize on what has been their greatest strength – their experience together.

“We definitely learned that we still need a lot of work, and that we still have a lot to learn, too,” Galiana said. “We need to play better as a team. We weren’t playing as a team in that game. It was really tough.”

Adding teams such as Berkley and Rochester Adams to the schedule this year was a move to help prepare for another postseason run. The Spartans have also moved from Division 2 back to Division 3, as they are no longer in a co-op with neighboring Dryden.

They’re hoping those experiences and adjustments can lead to the breakthrough they’ve been looking for since those days of having fun on empty lots.

“Since we were little kids we always dreamed of playing (for the high school team),” Galiana said. “We would go to high school games and see how they were playing, so it’s just really exciting to get out there. (Winning a Regional) would be my dream, honestly. Even states. But first, we have to get to Regionals.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Imlay City’s Sergio Galiana lines up a shot during a scrimmage this fall against Spartans alumni. (Middle) Giovanni Torres (3) works to gain possession during the scrimmage. (Photos by Erin Wetzel, StudioE Photography.)

Roy's Homecoming Success Continues for Division 1 Contender Clarkston

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

September 28, 2023

For Sebi Roy, there’s definitely been no place like home.

Greater DetroitJust 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.

Clarkston's Sebi Roy monitors the action against Oxford.“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 DunlapKeith 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.)