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 paulcostanzo3@gmail.com 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.)

Storch Returns to Retirement After Elevating Alpena Teams From Cellar to Contenders

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

December 16, 2022

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. 

Storch, holding the microphone, elevated the Wildcats’ girls and boys programs since taking over both in 2011. “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 tomspencer@chartermi.net 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.)