By Nate Thompson
NORTH MUSKEGON – Don’t fret about the North Muskegon girls soccer team.
They allowed a goal to West Michigan Conference rival Whitehall on Wednesday in the league’s tournament championship game, but amazingly, it was the first time the ball had scooted past their goal line all season.
It snapped North Muskegon’s streak of 16-straight games with a shutout, which was the third-best streak in state history.
North Muskegon still went on to defeat Whitehall in convincing fashion, 7-1, improving their sparkling season record to 17-0. And they have outscored their opposition by a staggering 136-1 tally.
With the Norse entering this week’s district tournament ranked No. 1 in Division 4 in the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association state rankings, there’s no question that they’re oozing confidence. They get an opening-round bye, then will square off in the semifinals against Muskegon Catholic Central on Thursday, May 31.vc
“It’s been kind of wild,” admitted North Muskegon Coach Ryan Berends, who is having his most successful season in his 11th year on the job. “I did expect that we could make a run at state based on what we graduated and with the talent that was coming into the program. But I didn’t expect the string of shutouts that we’ve turned in.
“Most of the girls played in an indoor league during the winter, and seeing them compete then, I knew we had a chance to be special.”
North Muskegon has just three seniors on their roster, but what they lack in experience, the Norse counter with outstanding speed, and remarkable balance across the board.
“I’d say this year, there’s less disparity of the level of play between everyone on the team,” said senior defender Emma Berends, who plays for her dad along with younger sister Grace, a junior. “When we sub in, there’s no drop off or a change in our level of play.”
As Berends pointed out, the team puts an emphasis on speed and sharing the wealth.
Ryan Berends said there is a great deal of unselfishness on his team, and it shows in the stats. Every player on the 17-player roster has scored at least one goal, including sophomore goalie Bodie Collins. Six players have reached double digits in goals, led by sophomore standout Sophia Mueller, who has 44.
And every player except Collins has at least one assist.
“We just have tremendous team speed,” Ryan Berends said. “We’ve got a group that’s very fast and well-conditioned. They’re a bunch of workers out there, and when we have the ball, they’re very technical, but also extremely unselfish. We don’t have the mindset that there’s one superstar or anything like that. Nobody’s worrying about who’s scoring.”
But the Norse’s go-to player is definitely Mueller, who fired in five goals against Whitehall on Wednesday and has earned the nickname “Sniper” from her teammates.
“We sometimes joke around and say, ‘Someone better call the police, we have a sniper on the field,’” said Emma Berends. “Her foot skill is amazing. If she is dribbling 1-on-1, she has no fear. And if she gets just an inch of space, she’ll wind up and take a shot. And most of the time, it’s going in the net.”
Coach Berends said that Mueller has converted on over 50 percent of her shots this season, but is a true playmaker with 16 assists as well. Freshman Hope Johnson is second on the team with 24 goals.
But it’s the Norse defense, along with first-year goalie Collins, who deserve the praise for the sensational shutout streak. North Muskegon employs a flat four defense, led by Emma Berends, returning All-Stater Ayla Pitts, and a pair of converted forwards, Reyna Johnson and Kendal Hoppa.
“Everyone works to benefit each other,” Emma Berends said. “The forwards work to possess the ball, the midfielders are working at not letting the other team transition to offense, and we’re trying to keep it away from Bodie. But if she does have to touch it, she has amazing hands and great instincts.”
Put it all together, and North Muskegon seems ready to make amends for last season’s crushing double overtime shootout loss to Western Michigan Christian in the district opener, and perhaps make a long run in the state tournament.
“We’ve learned from that,” Emma Berends said about last year’s district loss. “We realize we need to put together a full effort for the entire 80 minutes. It’s such a driving force, because we realize any team can end your season.
“But that’s not going to happen this season.”