By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

KENTWOOD – Nobody expected the Spring Lake soccer team to advance to the state finals this year.

So from that perspective, the Lakers had a lot to feel good about Saturday afternoon.

But the fact that they played beyond expectations couldn’t erase the sting of a 2-0 loss to East Lansing in the Division 2 state championship game at Crestwood Middle School in Kentwood.

Spring Lakes Nic Ellingboe dribbles past Andy Millar of East Lansing during state final action Saturday.

Spring Lake’s Nic Ellingboe dribbles past Andy Millar of East Lansing during state final action Saturday.

If fact, coming so far against the odds may have made the final defeat a bit more difficult to take.

“This is one of those bittersweet moments,” said Spring Lake coach Jeremy Thelen, whose team finished 16-7-3 and took state runner-up honors for the second time in three years. “The guys really enjoyed the run. It was really nice to get to the finals. I think this is something the boys will really enjoy later. But right now there’s a little sting to the way it ended.

“I’m really proud of these guys. They worked their butts off all season. But we ran into a buzzsaw of a team. East Lansing is good. They possess the ball really well and they work fast. I know a lot of teams that would have traded spots with us to be here today. It just hurts a bit at the moment.”

Spring Lake provided the Cinderella story of the state soccer tournament.

The Lakers lost 13 seniors to graduation last spring and expected to rebuild this fall. The regular season followed that script, with the team losing six matches and finishing second in the Lakes 8 Conference. Their frustration was punctuated by two losses to archrival Fruitport, which won the league title.

But Spring Lake came to life when the state tournament started, reeling off six straight victories to capture district and regional titles and earn a spot in the state championship match.

The Lakers defeated Reeths-Puffer, Fruitport, Kenowa Hills, East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills Northern and Sturgis by a combined score of 17-3.

They were clearly on a roll.

But the East Lansing Trojans are the type of opponent that can snuff out a hot streak in an instant. Simply put, they don’t give up many goals at all.

Saturday’s shutout was the sixth of the tournament for the Trojans, and they only gave up one goal in their other victory. They also had 11 shutouts during the regular season.

East Lansing kept Spring Lake from mounting any sort of offensive threat for most of Saturday’s contest. The Trojans outshot the Lakers 8-4, but only one of Spring Lake’s shots was deemed enough of a threat to count as a save for East Lansing goalkeeper Blair Moore.

“They’re a tough team,” said Spring Lake standout forward Nic Ellingboe, who had been on a scoring tear throughout the state tournament. “I know a few of their players from club soccer – a very high level of soccer – so I knew they had a lot of talent on their team.

“They attacked well, defended well and played midfield well.”

With such a stingy defense, two goals were more than enough for the Trojans.

Ben Swanson-Ralph scored on a long shot midway through the first half, giving East Lansing a 1-0 lead at halftime.

DeJuan Jones took a centering pass from Ian Carroll and scored from close range early in the second half, giving the Trojans their final margin of victory.

Goalkeeper Joe Czajka recorded five saves for Spring Lake.

“It’s a great feeling,” said East Lansing coach Nick Archer, whose team finished 25-2. “I’m so happy for the kids and the school. It’s a rare experience, a moment the kids are going to remember the rest of their lives.

“(Spring Lake) is a good team. They were worthy opponents. We were fortunate to get out of here with a win.”