By Nate Thompson
COMSTOCK PARK – The ending just didn’t feel right.
After 90 minutes of grueling action that was so taxing that it left North Muskegon’s Sophia Mueller with wobbly legs due to dehydration, the finish in the Division 4 state semifinals didn’t match the intensity of the game.
Even so, Kalamazoo Christian had an opportunity to steal the victory in an overtime shootout, and took full advantage.
Using the same five players they relied on in a shootout loss to Lansing Christian in last season’s state title game, Kalamazoo Christian reversed its fortunes by peppering the net for a 4-1 advantage in the shootout and a 2-1 victory over North Muskegon.
The Comets’ win sets up a state final rematch against Lansing Christian on Saturday at Williamston High School.
The cruel loss was the first of the season for North Muskegon (21-1), which had allowed just one goal all season entering the semifinal clash.
Norse Head Ryan Berends could only shrug when asked to describe the feeling of his team’s first and only setback.
“It’s hard to be upset in a game like that,” Berends said. “They gave it their all, and if you’re going to lose, you want it to be to a team that played harder and played better tonight. They came to the ball hard and they’re a very well-coached team.
“You look at the times they’ve been here the last decade,” he added. “They’re used to this. We’re not.”
Even with a lack of big-game experience, the Norse were just four minutes away from prevailing in regulation.
After being suffocated by physical play in the first half, Mueller finally found a sliver of daylight and made the Comets pay just 15 seconds into the second half.
The talented sophomore forward controlled a pass from junior Abby Grevel at the top of the penalty box and blasted a bending shot that went into the lower right corner of the net, past the reach of Comets’ goalie Jenna Blackwell.
“We knew coming in we were playing a legitimate team,” said Kalamazoo Christian coach Jay Allen. “And one of the things we talked about at practice on Monday was that we couldn’t make a lot of mistakes. We made one. I can’t say enough about (North Muskegon).”
North Muskegon’s stifling defense – which didn’t allow a shot on goal to the Comets through the first half – kept Kalamazoo Christian under control until late in regulation.
But the Comets were awarded a corner kick with 4:21 to play, a call that North Muskegon coaches argued should have been a goal kick.
The Comets’ Sarah Miller sent in a swooping kick that sailed past a scrum of players in front of the net and bounced to junior Kayla Beebe. Beebe headed the ball back toward the net, and it bounced past a shielded North Muskegon goalie Bodie Collins to tie the game at 1-1.
“I knew we could score on this team with our set plays,” Allen said. “So when we got that corner, you could probably see I sent all 11 players into that box.”
Although his team isn’t used to giving up goals, Berends didn’t think the tying goal rattled his players. The Norse generally controlled the action and had more scoring opportunities in the two 10-minute overtime periods, including a pair of close-range shots in the first OT.
But luck was not on North Muskegon’s side.
Kalamazoo’s Blackwell made a diving save with 5:45 on the clock, and the rebound bounced to the feet of North Muskegon’s Grevel with an open net in front of her. But Grevel sent the shot high and over the crossbar, keeping the game deadlocked.
In the shootout, the Comets were 4-for-4, while Mueller hit the right post and Grace Berends shot high on North Muskegon’s first two tries. Hope Johnson converted her shot for the Norse, but it wasn’t enough.
After the game, Allen said he “hated” shootouts and wished there was another way to end state tournament games. Berends agreed.
“I think we should keep going five (minutes) and five and five until someone scores,” Berends said. “It’s so high-pressure on individual girls in an individual moment. It’s tough all the way around.”
Berends, who will return most of his roster next spring, commended seniors Haley Slorf, Megan Sroka and Emma Berends for “laying the groundwork” for future success.