By Steve Gunn
The Lakers were playing without their head coach, Becky May, who missed the first two games with COVID. The junior varsity coach was also out with the virus, and the team was being run by two former players who are recent graduates and agreed to help out in the pinch.
The results on the field were so-so at best over the first few weeks. The Lakers started out with a 1-1-1 record, with a 0-0 tie against Hamilton, an impressive 8-0 win over Whitehall, but then a 4-3 loss to conference rival Hudsonville Unity Christian.
Even when May returned for the third game, there were issues to address. She was not very familiar with a lot of the players, because the team did not play in 2020 due to COVID. The Lakers were also counting heavily on six freshmen who obviously had no varsity experience, including the new starting goalkeeper.
A concussion knocked standout senior defender Reese Shelton out of the lineup until the end of the regular season, and another top defender, Kate Lewkowski, missed significant time with an ankle injury.
“Gosh no, for sure no,” said May, when asked if she saw potential for a long postseason run when the season got rolling. “I missed the first two games with COVID and I had to watch on live stream on the computer. And when I got back I had to get acquainted with two grades of kids I had never seen play before.
“It was quite a chaotic start to the season.”
Despite all the challenges, the Lakers somehow managed to find their game as the schedule rolled by, and the victories started piling up. They went 9-3 over the last 12 games of the regular season, finished second in the tough O-K Blue conference, and started to gain some serious confidence.
That showed in the state tournament, when the Lakers beat Reeths-Puffer (4-1) and Fruitport (4-0) in districts and East Grand Rapids (4-1) and Cadillac (1-0) in regionals, and finally Byron Center 2-1 on Tuesday in a state semifinal game.
Now they find themselves in a state championship game for the first time in program history. The Lakers, 15-3-2, will meet perennial power Bloomfield Hills Marian on Friday at 4 p.m. at Michigan State University, with the Division 2 title on the line.
That’s pretty amazing for a team that started out with only one win in its first three games, had no coach present during those games, ran into several serious injuries, and had a bunch of girls who had never played varsity soccer before.
“We were just trying to recover from the chaos and find some rhythm, and we slowly did that,” May said. “It was really a step-by-step process throughout the season.
“I scheduled the hardest schedule I could put on paper for these kids, playing teams like Mona Shores and Grand Haven and Forest Hills Northern. I put them in the toughest situations I could, and it worked out really well for us. It forced us to see where we were strong and where we needed work. It was quite the process.”
May said the real turning point came at midseason, when the Lakers beat two very strong teams back-to-back – Grand Haven 2-1 on May 8 and Mona Shores 1-0 on May 10. Those wins bred big confidence, and the Lakers were on their way.
“We had never beaten Mona Shores, and Grand Haven is always very hard to play, because they are always a great, well-coached team,” May said. “When we were able to pull off those two wins, I started thinking, hmm, I wonder what these kids can do, so we started pushing them even more and tweaking the lineups.”
One big plus on the offensive end has been forward Meah Bajt, who burst into her first full season of varsity soccer by scoring an amazing 37 goals.
“I played at Grand Haven, and I had the scoring record there,” May said. “In my best season I had 36 goals, so I told her she had better beat that, and she did! It’s an amazing number of goals, and she didn’t get them against small schools. We were putting her up against the best Division 1 and 2 teams in the area and she was still getting goals.
“Her biggest asset is that she has a drive to score goals that other kids don’t have. We have kids with a lot of speed and power and good work ethics, but they don’t have that kind of killer instinct in front of the goal. She is one of the most offensively dangerous kids I’ve seen on the field. She is just so driven, so hard to stop, and it’s because of her determination.”
On the back end of the field, the Lakers have an extremely talented and stingy defense, as well as a freshman goalkeeper, Jessica Stewart, who has been “the big surprise of the season,” according to May.
Stewart and the defenders have kept opponents scoreless in nine games this season, and only allowed one goal in seven other contests.
“That kid is just incredibly gifted and skilled,” May said about Stewart. “There is something odd about her – her composure. She just doesn’t get rattled. She stopped a penalty kick in one game when we just had to have her do it. She’s just as calm as can be, which is encouraging to our defenders, because they have someone behind them they can count on.”
The Lakers will be definite underdogs against Bloomfield Hills Marian in the state championship game. The Mustangs, 12-3-1 this season, have yet to give up a goal in five state tournament games. Even more importantly, Marian has a state championship legacy, and is very comfortable playing in the pressure of big games.
Marian has won the last three Division 2 state titles, in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“They have not been scored on (jn the tournament),” said May, whose team is comprised of eight freshmen, five seniors, five juniors and two sophomores. “In the regional round they mercied a team. They are the definition of a powerhouse. This is our first time on this stage, so it’s going to be quite an uphill battle for us. To say that we’re the underdogs is an understatement.”
But after what Spring Lake has accomplished over the past week, who knows what might happen?
Last Thursday the Lakers met a very strong Cadillac team in the state quarterfinals, and the day did not start out well. The team bus broke down on a quiet country road on the way to the game in Cedar Springs, parents had to come and take the girls the rest of the way to the game, and the contest started about 15 minutes late.
Despite the distraction and the stifling heat, Spring Lake battled to a 0-0 tie in regulation, then won 1-0 when senior forward Zoe Komar scored in the first overtime.
The same type of scenario played out in Tuesday’s semifinal game against Byron Center at Holland High School. The game was tied 1-1 with the clock running down in regulation when Komar struck again, scoring the game winner with just 1:33 remaining. The Lakers only had two shots on goal in the game, but they both found the mark, and that was enough to send them to the state finals.
“She’s not in the spotlight the way Meah is, but we needed one goal each game to win, and she got them,” May said about Komar. “You have to respect that about her. She didn’t want our season to end, and she made sure it didn’t.”