By Dave Tomczak

OAKRIDGE¬† –¬† The West Michigan Conference soccer tournament championship game began a day late, and almost never came to an end.

Rain and a slick North Muskegon field led to the game being cancelled just 15 minutes before it was supposed to start on Wednesday, and was moved to Thursday at Oakridge.

It was worth the wait.

North Muskegon captured the WMC tourney title in a back-and-forth battle with Whitehall, 3-2, following an 11-round shootout.

Whitehall’s No. 11 Tyler Brandel battles against North Muskegon’s Evan Zubryd. Photo/Leo Valdez

“We’ve been improving all year,” Norse coach Jeremy Tjapkes said. “And hopefully we are playing better soccer now, and I hope we can play better yet.”

Tied at 2-2 at the end of regulation, the game ended up in a shootout, with single shooters from each team going 1-on-1 with the opposing goalie from close range.

Both teams had three out of their first four shooters score, setting up what is supposed to be the fifth and final round.

North Muskegon goalie Nick Gerstweiler took a turn on offense, but launched his shot up and over the net. The senior didn’t have time to dwell on the miss, because he had to immediately return to the goal.

Joseph Gonzalez, Whitehall’s fifth shooter, launched a shot, but Gerstweiler slid to his right and made the save, keeping the game tied.

“I just need to be in the moment for the save,” Gerstweiler said. “So I had to get (the missed shoot) out of my mind and focus on the next save.”

Both teams made their next attempts, before the Norse missed to start round 7, giving Whitehall another chance for victory. But once again, Gerstweiler came up big, diving to his right to block a shot.

Brody Hoffman looks to clear for North Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

The next three rounds ended in goals for both teams. Then Brendan Gannon hit a shot for NM to start round 11, and once again, the stage was set for Gerstweiler.

And once again, diving to his right, the senior came up with a save and the Norse victory.

“He made some great saves in this game,” Tjapkes said. “He’s been solid for us the past two years. This was a great game with two good programs and two groups of great kids.”

North Muskegon took a 1-0 lead in the first half when Brody Hoffman took a long pass from Gerstweiler and got past Vikings goalie Richie Grow for the score.

Whitehall responded 15 minutes later when Brett Evans took a long cross-field pass from Gonzalez and fired it into the corner of the net to even the game at 1-1.

Devin Smith gets in front of Whitehall’s Denver Aguirre. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Norse took a 2-1 lead when Trevor Schultz launched a high kick from 50 yards out that bounced up and over Grow into the net with 7:31 left in the half.

The Vikings threatened throughout the second half, but weren’t able to pull even until Julian Pruitt broke in, cut toward center and fired a shot into the top left corner of the net with 9:26 left in the game.

There was no overtime, and the teams went straight into the shootout.

North Muskegon’s Schultz, Hoffman, Chad Hidlwein, Parker Kersman, Hudson Yaussy, Evan Zubryd, Jake Hoffer and Gannon scored in the shootout.

Murray Andree, Evans, Tyler Brandel, Isaac Parmley, Taden Brandel, Pruitt and Bailey Toranko scored for Whitehall.

“I’ve never seen it, never been a part of it, it was just crazy,” Vikings coach Bryan Mahan said of the 11-round shootout. “It was a fun game. I really like how we are playing, this is how you have to play going into the postseason.”

Whitehall finished regulation with an 11-9 shot advantage, as Grow had seven saves. Gerstweiler finished regulation with nine saves.