By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – The state high school soccer tournament has been exciting in recent years for Erik VanFossen and the Muskegon Catholic Crusaders.

They have advanced to the district finals in the first three years of VanFossen’s soccer career.

Erik VanFossen

Erik VanFossen

In 2012, they lost a 1-0 double overtime heartbreaker in the final against North Muskegon.

Last fall the Crusaders turned the tables when VanFossen scored the winning goal in the title game, sealing a 1-0 victory over North Muskegon.

MCC went on to advance to the regional final, where it finally bowed out of the tournament with a 1-0 loss to Bellaire.

VanFossen is a senior this year, and would obviously like to see his team advance even further in the state tournament, which begins Monday. But circumstances are bit different this season.

The Crusaders have a very inexperienced roster in 2014 – only two seniors and three juniors out of 26 players – and have won only  two games.

As MCC Coach Bill Moulatsiotis said, “At times we’ve been a jayvee team playing amongst men.”

That means VanFossen, one of the elite players in the area, will have to tie his hopes for senior year glory to a lot of freshmen and sophomores who are still learning the varsity game.

But VanFossen has been pushing the younger players to improve, and thinks the tournament may bring out the best in his team.

“I think we’re ready,” said VanFossen, whose team opens district play Wednesday at Hart. “This year we joined the Lakes 8 Conference and played really good competition. I think we’re ready now for Division 4 teams.

“Our team has improved in leaps and bounds. Every game we’ve been getting better and better. It’s still pretty frustrating once in a while, but I’ve learned to deal with it.”

VanFossen started playing soccer at a very young age and spent time with the Muskegon Lakers youth traveling team.

He played football in the eighth grade, which is not surprising for a kid who attends attends football-crazy MCC. But he quickly decided that soccer was his sport of choice in the fall. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Will VanFossen , who also played varsity soccer at MCC, graduating in 2012.

“I like the freedom you have when you’re out on the field, and it’s what I grew up with,” said VanFossen, who is also a standout in varsity basketball and track, but hopes to play soccer in college.

At 6-2 and 170 pounds, VanFossen has the type of frame that makes him difficult to defend. He also has speed, ball-handling skills, a very hard shot, and most importantly, a burning desire to win.

Last year he earned first team River Valley Conference honors and was a strong candidate for the Division 4 All-State team, according to Moutlatsiotis.

This year he has 12 goals and nine assists, good numbers that would obviously be higher if he played on a more experienced team.

VanFossen has advanced to the point where he no longer has a traditional soccer position. He started as a midfielder, but now MCC Coach Bill Moulatsiotis says his position is referred to as “liberal,” which means he can go pretty much where he wants to go on the field.

“He’s really strong on the ball – it’s really hard to knock him off the ball,” Moulatsioutis said. “His balance is very good, his vision is coming along, and his shot is very strong. I give him license to shoot from midfield if he thinks he has a chance to make it count.

“Everything runs through Erik, way or the other. The team goes as he goes. His game is more mature than most other kids.”

While the Crusaders have clearly struggled in their first year in the Lakes 8 Conference, playing traditional powers like Spring Lake and Fruitport, their steady improvement has been obvious.

They gave Spring Lake and Fruitport all they could handle the second time around, dropping a 2-0 decision to the Lakers and losing 1-0 to the Trojans.

A lot of the improvement can be traced to VanFossen’s leadership, according to Moulatsiotis.

“Just as much as he demands out of himself he demands from his teammates,” Moulatsiotis said. “He hustles to get a ball and if he doesn’t see you hustling he gets very upset – justifiably,” Moulatsiotis said. “He pushes everyone to be better.

“He’s part of my first senior class that I’ve coached all the way through, and he was my first project. He started as a freshman and really has become a great leader. It’s been wonderful to watch him develop that way. As long as I’m here I will be telling the players about that kid.”

Regardless of what happens in the district tournament, Moulatsiotis expects VanFossen’s hard work to pay off at some point. A few years down the road, when the young players mature and start winning a lot of games, they will be able to look back and recognize how their senior leader helped them develop, according to the coach.

VanFossen can appreciate that possibility, but would rather win right now.

“I don’t want to be done,” he said. “I definitely want it right now. I think having played on good teams the last couple years, my expectations are higher. I hate to lose.

“But if I could come back in three years and see these freshmen doing great things, that would be rewarding. I could see it happening.”