By Steve Gunn
His Orioles opened a lot of eyes by coming from behind to upset Grand Rapids South Christian 2-1 in the Division 3 state semifinals on Wednesday.
Now comes the big one. The Orioles will meet Flint Powers on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Comstock Park High School for a state championship.
It will be Anderson’s first appearance in the state finals after years of coaching boys and girls soccer teams at Ludington.
He has coached the girls squad since 2005. He coached the boys from 2003 through 2007, then returned to the job in 2016.
The closest he’s ever come to the state finals was in 2005, when his girls team made the semifinals in his first year.
While Ludington’s players, students, parents and fans are obviously excited, nobody is having more fun with the tournament run than Anderson.
“It is so rewarding to lead a team to an opportunity of a lifetime,” Anderson said. “It also has been so very cool to see former players, and get messages from them saying congrats and good luck. This moment doesn’t happen without the experiences that I had with them influencing the way I coach.
“This whole experience is incredible. ”
Wednesday’s semifinal victory caught a lot of people around the state by surprise. South Christian came into the game ranked fourth in the state, and had just beaten top-ranked Hudsonville Unity Christian in the regional finals.
Ludington, now 18-4-2 on the season, came in ranked 16th.
But the Orioles weren’t intimidated, even when they fell behind 1-0 in the second half, with 25 minutes left in the game.
They tied the score on a goal by Caleb Schoon. Then they scored the winning goal when Lynn Richard sprinted downfield and led teammate Zac Peterson on a 2-on-1 break. Richard got the Sailor goalkeeper to come out of the net before passing to Peterson, who ripped a shot to the back of the net with 3:44 left.
“I really felt we matched up well,” said Anderson, 46, a teacher at Ludington’s Foster Elementary. “I knew it was going to be a matter of the first 10 or 15 minutes, are we in the game?
“The boys saw that they could play with them. You could sense the confidence building the longer the game went on. You could see it in their eyes.”
The Orioles will face a similar challenge in the finals against Flint Powers (21-3-1), which was ranked third in the state in the last Division 3 state coaches poll.
“You hear people say, ‘Congratulations on making it there,’ and you sense they believe we can’t win,” Anderson said. “But I know the guys are going to go down there and put everything they have on the field. I told them today at practice, there are only two teams left practicing today, and we are one of them.
“They proved to themselves that they can go out there and compete with anybody.”
The Orioles were quietly confident coming into the 2017 season, because they returned 10 seniors and many other skilled players from last year’s squad.
“We had a feeling at the end of last year that we could have something special happen this year,” Anderson said. “We were in Division 2 last year and lost to Reeths-Puffer in the district finals. We pretty much returned everybody from that team, and we dropped down to Division 3.”
Ludington has relied heavily on defense this season. The Orioles have only allowed opponents to score three or more goals in four games.
Their tournament run has been a testament to their defensive stinginess. In districts the Orioles beat Manistee 2-1 and Shelby 2-0. In regionals they beat Boyne City 1-0 and Big Rapids 2-0.
Then came the 2-1 victory in the state semifinals.
Defensive standouts on the team have included Zac Peterson (who scored the game-winner in the semifinals), Kaleb Hatch, Noah Peterson, Sam Bandstra, Jared Ruba and Jacob Anderson, the coach’s son.
“The defense has been that way all season,” Anderson said. “We kept telling the boys that if they keep it low scoring they will always have a chance to win.”
One newcomer to the team this year – freshman goalkeeper Kyle Wendt – has also played a big role in keeping the scores low.
“Seeing him come up, I kind of had a feeling he was going to be the starter,” Anderson said. “He showed he really is our number one goalkeeper ”
The Orioles also have enough offensive firepower to get the job done. Their leading scorers are senior captains Ben Knoer (24 goals, four assists) and Caleb Schoon (18 goals, 12 assists).
“We know we can usually get one or two in on other teams, and it’s very comforting to know that we aren’t going to give up much,” Anderson said.
There was one notable game this season when the Orioles gave up a lot of goals, and didn’t score at all. They lost 8-0 to Western Michigan Christian, the team that beat them for the Lakes 8 Conference championship.
That loss was a learning experience, according to Anderson.
“It was just a different feeling that night,” Anderson said. “The guys were all extremely quiet. They were not talking much, which is kind of out of the norm. They were kind of too focused. We over-psyched ourselves up.
“We learned a lot about how to prepare ourselves for big games.”