By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
PORTAGE – The end is never easy, especially when it’s a team’s first taste of defeat – and especially when it appeared, for almost three quarters of the game, that a monumental upset was in the works.
There were plenty of tears Tuesday as Muskegon Mona Shores saw its 1-0 lead, and its perfect season, come unraveled as No. 1-ranked Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central scored three goals over an 8-minute stretch midway through the second half of a 4-1 victory in the Division 1 Regional Semifinals at Portage Central.
“We just ran out of gas,” explained first-year Mona Shores coach Dylan Darga, whose team finished 21-1. “We took the top-ranked team in the state deep into the second half. You always want one more win, but what we accomplished this season was pretty incredible.”
Top-ranked Forest Hills Central advanced to Friday’s 6 p.m. Regional championship game at Portage Central against No. 2 Brighton, which downed host Portage Central 3-1 in Tuesday’s first Semifinal game.
And perhaps Mona Shores’ dream season ended at the appropriate time.
For one thing, Darga can now focus 100 percent on his wedding this weekend.
Darga, a 3rd-grade teacher at Marquette Elementary School in the Muskegon Public School District, is getting married Saturday and his rehearsal dinner is Friday night – which would have been in direct conflict with the Regional championship game.
When Darga made his wedding plans last summer, he had no idea he would be coaching varsity soccer. Darga previously coached the junior varsity girls team at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer before taking the Mona Shores varsity job in February.
“We had some plans in place for Friday night if it came to that,” said Darga, who is assisted on the varsity by Scott White and also junior varsity coach Ashley Moblo. “I have a couple of very good assistant coaches, and they would have done a great job. It would have been strange for me not to be there with them.”
The timing of the loss provided the Shores players, coaches and fans with several nice trophies, as champions of the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black and their Division 1 District, while also whetting their appetites for next season. Mona Shores, which graduates just three seniors, should now have plenty of motivation heading into the 2018 season – which was the year everyone was targeting as the Sailors’ breakout year on the statewide stage, anyway.
Mona Shores just decided to get the party started one year early, putting together the first undefeated regular season in school history and their first District championship since 2007 with a 3-1 win over rival Grand Haven on Saturday.
Along the way, there were individual school records falling left and right – all by underclassmen.
Sarah Mikesell, a junior forward, already has the school record with 73 career goals (including 40 goals this season) with her senior season still to come. Sophomore Raegan Cox, a dynamic playmaker who has already verbally committed to sign with the University of Arkansas, set another school record with 31 assists. In goal, junior Megan Swanker recorded a school-best 15 shutouts – and did not allow a single goal in May until the opening game of the District tournament.
While those three have garnered the lion’s share of headlines this season, sophomore Nora Brown and junior Peyton Erndteman also were key cogs in the offensive attack.
But Darga singled out the play of his four starting defenders as a key reason Shores was able to rise to No. 3 in the final state rankings entering tournament play. Junior stopper Mal Meston was the ringleader of that defense, which also included senior Isabel Grace (the team’s lone senior starter), sophomore Erin Powers and freshman Alexa Musk.
“Those four are really the unsung heroes of our whole operation,” said Darga, a 2004 Fruitport High School graduate and soccer standout. “As a former defenseman myself, I tell them all the time how important they are. If you never allow a goal, you will never lose a soccer game.”
In addition to Grace, the other seniors on the roster were McKenna Matthews and Haley Gartland.
Even after taking the Mona Shores varsity job in February, Darga had little reason to believe there was going to be a potential conflict between his wedding and Regional tournament games.
Mona Shores had not won a District title in 10 years, and with just three seniors, it appeared the program’s breakthrough season would be another year away.
“Honestly, when I looked at the first six games of our season, I could see a scenario where we would be 4-2 or even 3-3 coming out of those games,” said Darga, pointing out early games against Holland West Ottawa, Grand Haven and Spring Lake. “So when we were 6-0, I knew we had something special going.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Mona Shores junior forward Sarah Mikesell, right, battles for possession of the ball during the Sailors' 3-1 victory over Grand Haven in the Division 1 District Final on June 3. Mikesell scored 40 goals this season and has 73 goals for her career. (Middle) First-year Muskegon Mona Shores soccer coach Dylan Darga reacts to the play during the Sailors' win over Grand Haven. Darga led Mona Shores to a 21-1 record in his first season as coach. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)