New Heroes Bring Unity Christian Repeat Result in Finals Rematch

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

June 15, 2024

EAST LANSING – There were plenty of new faces on the field this season for the Hudsonville Unity Christian girls soccer team, but the result ended up being very familiar.

The Crusaders claimed their second-straight Division 3 Finals title Saturday at DeMartin Stadium, and for the second-straight year did so with a 3-0 victory over Grosse Ile.

“We had 12 seniors graduate last year from that state title team, and I think 15 kids total that didn’t return,” Unity Christian coach Randy Heethuis said. “The kids that came back, it was a good solid core, and they did a good job of leading us back here the entire year. The youngsters, they came along. Pretty much every challenge that we threw at them – we had a tough schedule – they answered the bell.”

It was the 12th title for Heethuis and the Unity Christian program, tying Madison Heights Bishop Foley for most in the sport’s history. 

“I feel like it’s very good for our school,” said junior forward Ava Lutke. “We worked really hard to get here. Every year is a new year, but we work our butts off to get to the state finals and to win, so it’s really good.”

Grosse Ile’s Alaina Korody winds up to send the ball downfield. Also really good? Lutke. The Michigan State commit had a goal and two assists for the Crusaders on her future home field. She totaled 11 shots, with six on frame against Grosse Ile keeper Monica Arndt.

As Heethuis talked about many options he had while putting his team together this season, he was asked what part of that was Lutke.

“Many pieces,” he said with a smile. “And to her credit, too, she struggled a little bit early in the year. But she played different positions. I think she prefers to play up top, which she did probably three-fourths of the time today, but we played her in the midfield, she does great there. A couple times she even went back into more of a holding, defensive center mid spot – she’s just a gamer. She’s extremely competitive and wants to do whatever she can to help the team win. That’s a credit to her.”

Lutke set up Unity Christian’s first goal, taking a ball down the wing and turning it inside, which drew three Grosse Ile defenders toward her. She found the supporting run of Emma Vruggink in the box, and Vruggink smashed the ball into the open net 14 minutes, 27 seconds into the first half. 

Unity Christian (22-1-1) consistently put pressure on the Grosse Ile defense, pinning the Red Devils back into their own end for much of the game. But between Arndt, who had 12 saves, and some timely defending, the score remained 1-0 through the first 10 minutes of the second half.

At that point, however, Unity Christian found some cracks and scored a pair of goals in less than two minutes. 

The first came when Lutke jumped on a loose ball near the top of the box and slotted it inside the post. Several passes led to the build-up of the goal, with Addi Pell pushing it in Lutke’s direction. On the way there, it took a glance off a Grosse Ile defender, falling right into Lutke’s path.

Unity’s Emma Vruggink (12) controls possession while Olivia Zuccaro (16) defends.Tessa Ponstein scored 1 minute, 43 seconds later, with a curling left-footed shot from outside the box that found the opposite corner. Lutke had the assist on that goal.

Grosse Ile coach Kyle Lesperance said that while he felt his team was able to create a little more than it did a year ago against Unity Christian, the Red Devils (17-3-5) were still facing an uphill battle.

“They’re just so dangerous. They’re so fast-paced,” Lesperance said. “They’re technical on the ball, they’re very well-coached in their positions and off-the-ball movements. They’re a beast in this division.”

And this version of Unity Christian wasn’t even at full strength. Senior forward Vivian Nagelkirk, who led the team in scoring this season, injured her ankle in the Semifinal win against Freeland and had to be helped off the field. 

She started Saturday, though, and while clearly laboring at times, was pushing the ball up the field until she was finally subbed off in the final 10 minutes.

“To be honest, I knew I was going to play,” she said. “I wasn’t going to sit out. When it happened right away, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to play.’ But then I was like, “There’s no way I’m sitting out of this thing.’ So we just wrapped it up really tight, and we played.”

Nagelkirk finished the game with two of her team’s 32 total shots on the day. Grosse Ile managed three shots, with one testing Unity Christian keeper Anna Newhof, who made the single save required of her.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Unity Christian celebrates its repeat Division 3 Final win over Grosse Ile on Saturday. (Middle) Grosse Ile’s Alaina Korody winds up to send the ball downfield. (Below) Unity’s Emma Vruggink (12) controls possession while Olivia Zuccaro (16) defends.

Record-Setting Viney Gained Lifelong Confidence at Marine City

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

July 17, 2024

Olivia Viney didn’t have to look far for inspiration while taking on the challenge of applying to veterinary school.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosThe 2015 Marine City graduate and record-setting placekicker simply drew from her own experience as a high school athlete.

“It just really taught me that I could do hard things,” Viney said. “I was very involved when I was in school. I did soccer, theater, travel soccer and then football. Especially with football, I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can do it. That helped me to excel in undergrad. When it came time to get accepted to vet school, it was like, ‘This is what I have to do,’ and I did it. That was very confidence-building. It taught me that I really can do hard things.”

Viney, who graduated from Saginaw Valley State University in 2019 and Michigan State Veterinary School in 2023, is now working as an associate veterinarian at Deporre Veterinary Hospital in West Bloomfield. 

Accomplishing her goals is nothing new to Viney, and not at all a surprise to those who watched her come through the Mariners athletic program.

“She was very serious, she was focused and she was dialed in,” said Dave Frendt, who coached Viney in both football and soccer at Marine City. “She knew what she wanted to accomplish, and she set out to do that. She was a fierce competitor and very driven. She was a good leader in that way where she was kind of feisty, but the team would follow that.”

Viney was an all-state soccer player for the Mariners, leading them to a pair of District titles and a Macomb Area Conference Gold title during her four years as a varsity player. It’s the sport she grew up playing, but the one she was most known for after graduation was football. American football.

The 5-foot-1-ish center attacking midfielder found herself in the MHSAA football record book after hitting all seven of her extra point attempts in the Mariners’ 2013 Division 4 Final victory against Grand Rapids South Christian.

“I think it makes sense,” she said. “There were lots of great soccer players, even that I played with. Great players that had gone through school, so I don’t think it’s weird that people remember me for that. When I talk with people, they’ll connect the dots – ‘Oh, you played football.’

“I was more accomplished as a soccer player and had more accolades. But I’m prouder of my football accomplishments, because it was really setting a pathway for girls that wanted to get into that. It’s so much more common now, or accepted. Even though it’s been almost 11 years since we won at Ford Field, I’m so proud of high school Olivia and what she did, the courage she had. She wasn’t scared of anything.”

Viney graduated from MSU’s Veterinary School in 2023. Viney joined Marine City’s football program as a sophomore, playing on the junior varsity squad. While she was there only to kick, she was all in when it came to practicing.

“Coach (Joe) Fregetto made me do tackling drills and drills in the mud – I really did earn my spot on the team,” Viney said. “I think it was mostly because he didn’t know what to do with me, so I guess just do everything that the guys do.”

She handled varsity kicking duties the next two years, setting the school record in 2013 for most extra points made during a single season – a record that still stands. Former Mariners coach Ron Glodich said that Viney actually never missed an extra point that season, as the four failed attempts were never even kicked.

It was her performance in the Division 4 Final that gained her statewide acclaim, as she hit 7 of 7 attempts, tying a record for most extra points made in a Finals game. It stood until a pair of kickers hit eight in 2022.

One record that never will be broken, however, is Viney becoming the first female to score a point at the Finals.

“Everything was so surreal, I was so nervous,” Viney said. “One of my most vivid memories was that day, or maybe the day before, Coach Glodich said, ‘Just so you know, when you get to the field, the goal posts are two feet narrower on each side. But that doesn’t matter if you kick it in the middle.’

“We got there and watched the team before us so we could get used to it, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re so narrow.’ … Seeing myself up on the big screen was kind of almost a little embarrassing, because I knew people were talking about me being the girl. But once we were in the game, it was a lot like any other game. I was just waiting for my turn to go on the field and do my job.”

Viney later was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” – ironically, right below current U.S. Women’s National Team forward Mallory Pugh – but she wasn’t looked at any differently by her teammates, and she wouldn’t have wanted to be.

“That team was all about sacrifice for the team,” Frendt said. “For them to realize, ‘None of us can do what she does, so we better embrace it, because no one else can do it.’ They really made her feel like part of the team. They wanted to protect her, too. But she was tough. She wasn’t going to take anything.”

Viney went to SVSU to study biology and played for its club soccer team. During her time there, she volunteered at an animal shelter and made the decision she wanted to help animals in her career. She works in general practice at Deporre, and would eventually like to work in shelter medicine.

She and her husband Matt, who were married in May, live with their three dogs. She’s not far from home, and in the spring of 2023 she visited Frendt’s college and career readiness class to speak with students at her alma mater. Her presentation and the attention to detail and hard work she put into it, Frendt said, blew his students away. Not that it surprised him.

“That’s poured into her life after sports,” he said of her work ethic. “She just kept plugging away. She’s awesome.”

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PHOTOS (Top) Marine City’s Olivia Viney kicks at the 2013 11-Player Football Finals, also during her spring soccer season, and cares for one of her patients as an associate veterinarian. (Middle) Viney graduated from MSU’s Veterinary School in 2023. (Photos courtesy of Olivia Viney.)