By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
ROCKFORD – Rockford girls lacrosse coach Mike Emery wants his team to obtain experiences they will never forget.
It’s the foundation of the program, and it has catapulted the Rams into a perennial state powerhouse over the past decade.
“We’ve tried to develop a culture of a family atmosphere,” Emery said. “We are all about making memories first, and then we move on from that.”
Rockford has made a plethora of lasting memories in the past 10 years, including nine consecutive MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal appearances and a spot in five Finals.
The Rams won their first Division 1 championship in 2010 and have added four more over the last four seasons.
Prior to that remarkable stretch, they had never won a playoff game.
A tight-knit relationship among players and coaches and dedication to the sport have factored into their decade of dominance.
“Over the years we’ve developed a culture that we have where people want to be part of the program and the kids want to play all season long,” Emery said. “Even when the Finals end, the most disappointing thing for us is that we’re not going to be together the next day.
“We have some skilled people who help with development, but a focus is having fun. We have 90 days together every (season) and we spend a lot of time in the offseason, whether it’s in the weight room, stick skills or open gyms. It’s developed over time into a year-around program.”
A standard of excellence also has been created following that string of championships.
“We all work really hard in practice and outside of practice,” said junior Brooklyn Neumen, a three-year starter who leads the Rams with 35 goals this season. “We have a really good youth program, and our coaches are really good. In the offseason we all play summer ball.”
The development of a strong youth program has paid dividends, especially this season as the Rams start three freshmen and eight of their 12 starters are freshmen and sophomores.
It’s a crucial element in the reloading process that is evident every spring.
“We have a great youth program, and our junior varsity coach spends a lot of time on skill development,” Emery said. “It’s not just the things we do, it’s why and how we do the things we do. That’s what we feel separates us from other programs.”
Rockford graduated eight seniors from last year’s team, but hasn’t missed a beat.
The Rams are 8-1, and their lone one-goal loss came against a team from of out of state, Ohio power Upper Arlington.
“They were a really fast team and had good skill work,” said junior MeKenzie Vander Molen, another three-year starter who has produced 18 goals.
“It’s good for us to play against defenses like that because it helps prepare us for other teams that we’re going to play.”
Emery said this year’s team possesses plenty of speed and the ability to not dwell on misfortunes.
“They never quit, and we’re pretty fast,” he said. “Even when they make mistakes, they are aggressive mistakes and no one hangs their head. They go after the ball again the next time. They’ve done a nice job.”
The graduation losses haven’t been noticeable in the win column as the younger girls have filled the voids admirably.
Freshmen Madelyn Yakes has been solid in the goal, while another freshman, Sydney Zimmerman, has been a staple in the offensive attack with 17 goals.
“Even though we are young we can still get the ball up the field in transition and not lose it,” Vander Molen said. “We have a good variety of girls.”
And of course, the Rams also have some significant star power back this spring. Vander Molen and sophomore sister Karrington both have committed already to continue their careers at Ohio State, and Neumen is committed to North Carolina. Senior Sisely Vongphasouk has signed with Kennesaw State (Ga.), and senior Samantha DeBoer will play next season at Alma College.
“We lost some big girls, but we have young freshmen that are really good players and we have a lot of sophomores and juniors that are stepping up,” Neumen said. “I think we have a really good team, just as we did last year.”
While the postseason is still a month away, the pursuit of a fifth straight Division 1 title is on the Rams’ minds.
They are driven to replicate past accomplishments, and refuse to see the streak end.
“We don’t have to talk about the state championships; it’s there,” Emery said. “The banners hang in our stadium and in the gym, and the girls have their championship rings. Each group feeds into that.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s MeKenzie Vander Molen (13) gathers the ball in traffic during last season’s Division 1 Final against Birmingham United. (Middle) Sisely Vongphasouk had a goal and an assist in the 12-9 championship game win.