By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
ROCKFORD – Rockford girls lacrosse coach Mike Emery wants his team to obtain experiences they will never forget.
It’s the foundation of the program, and it has catapulted the Rams into a perennial state powerhouse over the past decade.
“We’ve tried to develop a culture of a family atmosphere,” Emery said. “We are all about making memories first, and then we move on from that.”
Rockford has made a plethora of lasting memories in the past 10 years, including nine consecutive MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal appearances and a spot in five Finals.
The Rams won their first Division 1 championship in 2010 and have added four more over the last four seasons.
Prior to that remarkable stretch, they had never won a playoff game.
A tight-knit relationship among players and coaches and dedication to the sport have factored into their decade of dominance.
“Over the years we’ve developed a culture that we have where people want to be part of the program and the kids want to play all season long,” Emery said. “Even when the Finals end, the most disappointing thing for us is that we’re not going to be together the next day.
“We have some skilled people who help with development, but a focus is having fun. We have 90 days together every (season) and we spend a lot of time in the offseason, whether it’s in the weight room, stick skills or open gyms. It’s developed over time into a year-around program.”
A standard of excellence also has been created following that string of championships.
“We all work really hard in practice and outside of practice,” said junior Brooklyn Neumen, a three-year starter who leads the Rams with 35 goals this season. “We have a really good youth program, and our coaches are really good. In the offseason we all play summer ball.”
The development of a strong youth program has paid dividends, especially this season as the Rams start three freshmen and eight of their 12 starters are freshmen and sophomores.
It’s a crucial element in the reloading process that is evident every spring.
“We have a great youth program, and our junior varsity coach spends a lot of time on skill development,” Emery said. “It’s not just the things we do, it’s why and how we do the things we do. That’s what we feel separates us from other programs.”
Rockford graduated eight seniors from last year’s team, but hasn’t missed a beat.
The Rams are 8-1, and their lone one-goal loss came against a team from of out of state, Ohio power Upper Arlington.
“They were a really fast team and had good skill work,” said junior MeKenzie Vander Molen, another three-year starter who has produced 18 goals.
“It’s good for us to play against defenses like that because it helps prepare us for other teams that we’re going to play.”
Emery said this year’s team possesses plenty of speed and the ability to not dwell on misfortunes.
“They never quit, and we’re pretty fast,” he said. “Even when they make mistakes, they are aggressive mistakes and no one hangs their head. They go after the ball again the next time. They’ve done a nice job.”
The graduation losses haven’t been noticeable in the win column as the younger girls have filled the voids admirably.
Freshmen Madelyn Yakes has been solid in the goal, while another freshman, Sydney Zimmerman, has been a staple in the offensive attack with 17 goals.
“Even though we are young we can still get the ball up the field in transition and not lose it,” Vander Molen said. “We have a good variety of girls.”
And of course, the Rams also have some significant star power back this spring. Vander Molen and sophomore sister Karrington both have committed already to continue their careers at Ohio State, and Neumen is committed to North Carolina. Senior Sisely Vongphasouk has signed with Kennesaw State (Ga.), and senior Samantha DeBoer will play next season at Alma College.
“We lost some big girls, but we have young freshmen that are really good players and we have a lot of sophomores and juniors that are stepping up,” Neumen said. “I think we have a really good team, just as we did last year.”
While the postseason is still a month away, the pursuit of a fifth straight Division 1 title is on the Rams’ minds.
They are driven to replicate past accomplishments, and refuse to see the streak end.
“We don’t have to talk about the state championships; it’s there,” Emery said. “The banners hang in our stadium and in the gym, and the girls have their championship rings. Each group feeds into that.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s MeKenzie Vander Molen (13) gathers the ball in traffic during last season’s Division 1 Final against Birmingham United. (Middle) Sisely Vongphasouk had a goal and an assist in the 12-9 championship game win.
Bloomfield Hills advanced to the Division 1 Semifinals this spring with one of the highest-scoring lineups in MHSAA girls lacrosse history, and one of its most accomplished goalies.
The Black Hawks scored 325 goals – sixth-most on the list – in going 19-4. Ella Lucia, then a junior, posted 17 single-game record entries for goals, assists or points, finishing with 125 goals, 59 assists and 184 points and pushing her career numbers to 186 goals, 113 assists and 299 points over three seasons.
Teammate Ilana Watson, a senior this spring, was added eight times for single-game accomplishments and also for 71 goals, 64 assists and 135 points for the season and 102 assists and 205 points over her two-season career. Goalie Sydney Butler, now a senior, made the single-season saves list with 186 and the career list with 466 over her first three seasons. Marlee Watson, who also graduated in the spring, was added for seven goals in a game.
See below for more recent record book updates for girls lacrosse:
On April 25, 2022, Holland West Ottawa then-senior Ella Spooner scored 13 of her team’s 16 goals against Zeeland. Those 13 goals tied for fourth-most in one game and also placed her on the single-game points list. She is playing at Kalamazoo College.
Troy Athens’ Claire Balintfy piled up eight record book entries during her sophomore season in 2022. A goalie, she posted a career-high 22 saves to tie for eighth on the single-game list, on which she appears six more times. Her 231 saves over 18 games that season rank second on that list as well.
Lexie Springman took 12 shots and made eight in Portage’s 19-9 win over Grand Ledge on April 5. She was a senior at Portage Central and is continuing at Regis University in Colorado.
Haslett/Williamston’s Abby Russell opened her high school career March 22 with a record book-worthy performance. The Haslett now-sophomore made the single-game goals list with seven in her team’s 10-9 loss at Portage.
Okemos’ Bridget Cox was a sophomore during the 2021 season when she earned her first four record book entries. She made the single-game saves list three times with a high of 16, and totaled 157 saves over 18 games total.
Holly/Ortonville Brandon tallied three single-game entries this past season. Junior Dakota Pinson made the single-game goals list with 10 against Fenton/Linden on May 4. Junior teammate Lainey Lasky made the same list twice with seven goals both times, against Flushing on May 3 and Lake Fenton/Goodrich on May 16.
Through three seasons, Salem’s Mileena Cotter has earned 35 record book entries – including setting the single-game record with 18 goals April 6 against Saline. Her 123 goals over just 10 games this past season rank seventh, and her 257 goals over 30 career games rank ninth on that list. Her career-high 19 points on April 5 against Dexter rank second for points in a game. She’s committed to sign with Syracuse.
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep junior Emily Szalach earned a record book entry with her 11 goals against Warren Regina on May 15 during a 13-12 triple-overtime win. It was the first entry for NDP for girls lacrosse.
Lake Orion’s Quinn McElroy capped her three-season varsity career this spring with eight record book listings, including for 69 goals and 100 points over 16 games as a senior, and 172 goals and 224 points for her career. Teammate Morgan Vasquez made single-season lists with 66 goals and 81 points, as did Amelia Guccione with 50 goals. Ava Adkins joined McElroy and Vasquez with single-game qualifiers, hers for 15 saves in a game against Troy Athens on April 12. Vasquez is a senior and Guccione a junior this school year, and Adkins also graduated this spring. McElroy is playing at Grand Valley State.
A pair of Detroit Cass Tech senior standouts made single-game and season scoring lists this spring. Taylor Weston made the single-game goals list three times, with a high of eight, and for her 64 goals total over 15 games; she also earned a listing for her 53 goals as a junior in 2022. Teammate Kayla Carroll-Williams made the single-game list twice, both for scoring seven goals, and the single-season list for 62 goals over 15 games.
PHOTO Bloomfield Hills goalie Sydney Butler, center, prepares to stop a shot against Bloomfield Hills Marian on May 11. (Photo by Susan Adams Photography.)