LocalSportsJournal.com

COOPERSVILLE — Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. When you have a combination of the two, it’s even better.

Just ask the Reeths-Puffer boys soccer team. The Rockets benefited from a big break 17 minutes into the second half Thursday night to come away with a 1-0 decision over Spring Lake to win the MHSAA Division 2 district championship.
 
It is the Rockets’ fourth district title in the soccer program’s history. The most recent one came in 2019.
 
The two teams battled to a 0-0 draw after the first 40 minutes, and while each team made a few adjustments, neither could crack the other’s defense for almost 20 minutes of the second half.
 
It was then that Rockets freshman Owen Ritsema sprinted at the Lakers centre-back, who got his head on the ball.
 
Lakers goalie Ettienne Wallis had come out of the goal to gather in the pass, but it was too hard and went over his head and into the back of the net for the decisive goal.
 
Effort and hustle created a miscommunication on the Lakers’ part that led to the win for the Rockets.
 
“Sometimes, you need a little bit of luck, and need a ball to bounce your way,” Rockets coach Kody Harrell said. “We know that Spring Lake has a lot of talent, we know they’ve won quite a few district titles.
 
“Kind of a been there, done that attitude about them a little bit.
 
“We’re very confident in our ability to score goals, but we knew that they’d be tough to come by in this game, particularly at this stage of the season.
 
“So, we really focused a lot on defense, discipline and communication, and honestly just focused on what do you have control of, 100 percent of the time.
 
“And, that’s effort, communication and hustle. Things like that. I think that helped with our defense overall, and our shape, that good stuff tonight.”
 
Spring Lake had its chances, ending the night with seven shots on goal.
 
But Rockets junior goalie Gage Hopkins, a three-year starter, rejected them all.
 
“It was a good game, back and forth,” Lakers coach Jeremy Thelen said. “We pushed and pushed, but just couldn’t get it past their goalie.
 
“One little break here, and one little break there makes a huge difference in the game. We played an extremely tough schedule this year. I’m proud of how the kids battled.
 
“I really think we worked hard this season. I really appreciate what my seniors have given to the program. They’re fantastic kids. We play until the end. Even a 1-0 game, we thought we had it with 14 seconds left. It didn’t work out tonight.”
 
Spring Lake was led by a pair of seniors in the back on defense, Jaxson Tober and Reese Robson.
Senior midfielders who have been key for the Lakers all season were Conrad Bush and Jack Mulder.
Twin brothers, juniors Isaac and Will Rudd, have led the Lakers attack up front this year.
 
“Reeths-Puffer is a good, organized team,” Thelen said. “They played hard. I’m sad to lose. I’m disappointed in that. But, they’re a good opponent.
 
“It’s sad to see these seniors move on. Then, the team changes shape. It’s my job as the coach to get them in line, and ready to fight again next year.”
 
It was the first district championship for Harrell as a head coach. He never won one as a player, so he said it was kind of a surreal feeling when he received the trophy after the game.
 
“Even now, two hours after the game, I just don’t really know how to act,” Harrell said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me the first one is the best one. The first one will always be something special.
 
“I’m really excited that it was this group of boys that I got to experience it with. They are a very hard working group, that’s been through a lot this year. It’s an amazing feeling, for sure.”
 
Rocket senior Liam McHugh is the leader and backbone of the defense at centre-back, continually shouting instructions to his teammates and keeping them on point.
 
“He kept everyone organized, worked his tail off, won every ball in the air, won so many headers tonight,” Harrell said. “Did not let anyone come close to passing him. He’s a physical specimen.”
 
The Rockets improved to 11-8-2 on the season, and await the winner of Saturday’s district final between Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern and Grand Rapids Northview in the regional semifinal next Tuesday at Cedar Springs.
 
Spring Lake finished 11-8-1.

All photos are courtesy of LSJ Photographer Joe Lane ll