By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
“To say that we’re the underdogs is an understatement,” she said.
In the end her concerns proved to be well-founded, because Spring Lake fell 3-0 to Bloomfield Hills Marion on Friday in the championship game at Michigan State University.
Marion, 13-3-1, won its fourth straight Division 2 state title, and pulled off the amazing feat of winning six games in the postseason without giving up a goal.
Spring Lake finished 15-4-2 and won district and regional championships. Friday’s appearance in the state final was the first ever for the Lakers’ girls program.
While Marian was clearly the better team, and deserved to continue its state soccer dynasty, the Lakers were not embarrassed. They only trailed 1-0 at halftime and looked like a candidate to hang around and pull out another win in the end, like they did in the regional finals and state semifinals.
Marian dashed those hopes with two quick goals early in the second half, but Spring Lake never stopped fighting.
“I had a bunch of kids out there who were in middle school last year,” Coach May said. “Now they’re playing on this big stage, and you could just tell they were young. They made young mistakes, and we’ll work on them, but they played with a ton of heart and came farther than anyone expected.”
A huge throng of Laker fans made their way to MSU for the contest. They had watched the Lakers improve dramatically over the course of the season, overcoming a 1-1-1 start to the season, injuries to key players, the temporary loss of Coach May to COVID at the start of the season, and a heavy reliance on a lot of freshmen with no varsity experience.
The fans were rewarded by an exciting tournament run that included wins over Reeths-Puffer, Fruitport, East Grand Rapids, Cadillac and Byron Center – and they cheered on the Lakers all the way to the end on Friday.
“It was awesome,” said Spring Lake junior forward Meah Bajt, who finished the season with a team-leading 37 goals. “The support from our community was incredible. It was awesome to have everyone look at us and tell us good luck. It was such a blessing to get here, and it doesn’t happen often.”
Friday’s title game looked like it was going to be very one-sided in the early minutes, after Elle Ervin scored for Marion about five minutes into the contest.
But the Lakers settled in after that and played far better. They had several good scoring chances throughout the first half, including a hard shot from Bajt with 23:42 left that bounced off the crossbar of the Marion goal.’
Marion had a 5-0 advantage in first half shots on goal, but only led 1-0 the break.
“We had a few really good looks in the first half, and typically we capitalize on one or two of those,” May said. “Sometimes you just don’t, and it’s hard. They’re kids, and it’s hard to have a big buildup and not have it go right. It’s hard to get their heads back up after that.”
The Mustangs took control in the opening minutes of the second half, getting a goal from Olivia DeConinck 2:20 into the half, then another from Ervin about two minute later. The rest of the game was scoreless, with Marion outshooting the Lakers 6-0 in the second half.
Freshman goalkeeper Jessica Stewart made eight saves for Spring Lake.
The silver lining for Spring Lake is that many players, including Bajt, will return next year with the experience of winning at the highest levels of the state tournament. Spring Lake had nine freshmen on the roster this season.
“It’s great because now they know how fast the play is and what to expect,” Bajt said about her younger teammates. “When we come back next year, we will be so much stronger just because of that.”
“I’m very excited,” Coach May added. “Not just because they got us to this point, but they’re extremely teachable and humble. They work hard and they’ve now had a year together. Any time you can get a group and move them up together it’s a huge asset. We’ll have a target on us next year, but we’ll be ready. We’v had some very encouraging things.”