By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
COMSTOCK PARK – Mason Smith and the Flint Powers Catholic boys soccer team were not about to have the same ride home this year.
Last year the Chargers dropped a heart-breaking one-goal loss in the Division 3 Final, and Smith remembers how he and his teammates felt after their loss to Grand Rapids Catholic Central – and how long that ride home lasted.
All you had to do was look at how big Smith's smile was after Saturday's championship game against Ludington to know this trip home would feel much shorter.
Smith and his Flint Powers teammates scored three first-half goals Saturday, and then held off a game Ludington team to win the program's third MHSAA title, 4-2 at Comstock Park High School.
"(Last year's loss in the Finals) made this happen," said Smith, a senior midfielder and captain for the Chargers. "Losing last year helped us overcome a lot of things. We just put in our head that we didn't want to lose like last year."
The Chargers came out on fire, and appeared to score an early goal in the first half – but the goal was taken off the scoreboard because of a foul.
That setback didn't slow Flint Powers down, as the Chargers got their first goal that counted at the 26:07 mark from junior midfielder Garret Delamielleure.
Ludington tied the game just more than six minutes later on a penalty kick by junior defenseman Noah Peterson, but Flint Powers scored at the 12:46 and 10:31 marks with goals by Delamielleure and senior midfielder Dominic Ruth. Ruth's goal was a beautiful header.
"I knew we were capable of starting out like that," said Flint Powers coach Tony Rowe, whose team ended its year at 21-2-1. "To get that goal called back, that was like a two-goal momentum. But the boys kept at it, and I am so proud. We never quit attacking."
It was that attacking that flustered the Orioles.
"I think the pressure got to us in the first half," said Ludington coach Kris Anderson, whose team completed its year at 18-5-2. "Our back line was out of sync. We had some people moving around in spots, and we missed some balls. We weren't organized back there."
But Ludington would not quit, and cut the Flint Powers lead to one goal with just over 17 minutes to play on a goal by senior midfielder Lucien Chasse.
However, 24 seconds later, Powers senior defenseman Connor Boerman capped the scoring for the game on a penalty kick after a Ludington foul, and sent the Chargers home happy.
"Ludington gave us a heck of a game," Rowe said. "Props to their coach and their team. I know what it feels like to lose in a state championship game, and they have nothing to be ashamed of, the way they played. They had an incredible season."
The two goals the Orioles scored Saturday were the only goals Flint Powers gave up the whole tournament.
"The first half we put ourselves in a hole," Anderson said. "But we talked at half, we said this game wasn't over, we have been in this position before being down two. We got that one, but then the call in the box (and Flint Powers' penalty kick goal) changed everything.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Powers’ Garret Delamielleure works to gain possession during Saturday’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Ludington’s Caleb Schoon (17) pushes the ball upfield while Chargers chase.
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.)