By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Winning MHSAA championships runs in Mackenzie Stroebel’s family.
Her sister Lindsay won a basketball title at Saginaw Nouvel, while her mother Dawn did the same at Carrollton.
After coming tantalizingly close in each of the past three seasons, Mackenzie Stroebel is ready to continue her family’s streak with her other family – the Freeland girls soccer team.
“Ever since we lost (in the 2017 Division 3 Final), that’s all I really thought about, is getting there and winning it this year,” Stroebel said. “My mom and sister, they won state championships in basketball, so it makes me want to go that far and win it. Seeing how the community supports everyone, it’s just a good feeling. It would make some school history for us, because no soccer team has ever done it. That’s what I’m striving for, to help make history within our school.”
The Falcons have already made plenty of school history over the past four years, seeing an unprecedented run of success under coach Lauren Kemerer. Since Kemerer took over prior to the 2014 season, Freeland has gone 83-9-4 (including a win in its lone game this season), winning four straight Regional titles, which resulted in four straight Division 3 Semifinal berths. The 2014 Regional title was the first in program history.
“It took a lot of restructuring, and establishing my views and my beliefs in soccer,” said Kemerer, who played collegiately at Schoolcraft College and Saginaw Valley State University. “Not that the coach before me was doing things wrong. But when I came in I said, ‘Listen, this is a clean slate,’ and revamped everything. I kind of put my spin on things, my views, and how I believe athletes should be dedicated to the sport, the team and the school.”
Thanks to Kemerer’s approach of showing rather than telling, the girls quickly bought in. That, combined with a strong soccer community in Freeland, led to quick results.
“The really great thing about the Freeland community is all these girls have played with each other and on the same team while they were growing up,” Kemerer said. “The relationship they have on and off the field, they’re pretty much inseparable. It makes the community and team a really tight-knit family.”
With the loss of a strong senior class, including all-state midfielders Michelle Herring and Jessica Piper, the Falcons hope that strong community can lead to a quick integration of the underclassmen on their roster.
Despite the fact outdoor practices have been at a premium thanks to the weather, the Falcons feel that integration is coming along nicely.
“I think the biggest thing with underclassmen is they are nervous, so as soon as they feel comfortable and calm with those nerves of playing at the varsity level, they’ll be successful,” Stroebel said. “Our team is really close, so that helps, too. Most of the underclassmen that are varsity this year got pulled up for tournaments last year. We know them, we all walk the same halls, so you see them pretty much every day.”
There is plenty of talent returning to help those underclassmen and take the pressure off them. Stroebel was a first-team all-state forward a year ago, while junior forward Autumn Kloha was second-team all-state and senior keeper Alexa Walker earned honorable mention.
“We have a really young team, but we’re going to be solid this year again,” Kemerer said. “Even though we’re really young, we have a lot of talent.”
The veterans on the team have set a goal of winning the Division 3 title. That’s not uncommon, of course, but for Freeland it’s not overly ambitious. It’s also different than a year ago.
In 2017, the Falcons set a goal of defeating three-time reigning champion Hudsonville Unity Christian, the team that knocked them out in the Semifinals in 2015 and 2016.
It was a big goal, and one Freeland accomplished but in the Semifinal, one game short of winning it all. Without Piper, who was injured in the Semifinal win against Unity Christian, and with their season goal completed, Freeland found it difficult to keep up with a strong Flint Powers team.
“Going into the game, we kind of already were set because (defeating Unity Christian) was our goal,” Freeland senior Hannah Doran said. “I don’t think we were really prepared for it, because we had prepared for the Semifinal game. We had our hearts in it, but I don’t think we were all there for the last game.”
The 4-0 loss was a learning experience, however, as Freeland was able to see what was needed to compete for a title. So far, Kemerer has seen a determination to match that.
“They know what it takes now to be at that level,” Kemerer said. “They were just crushed last year after they lost. I told them, ‘This game is going to be a big game; it’s faster paced.’ Getting a taste of knowing what it takes to win at that level was good for them. They’re hungry. They’re very much hungry for that title.”
With the goal in place, and a plan to get there, the Falcons are ready to make history for the Freeland family.
“It would make school history, first of all,” Kloha said. “I would just feel accomplished winning a state championship. That’s what I’ve been working for my whole high school career and through travel, to win a state championship.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Freeland’s Mackenzie Stroebel (24) carries possession upfield during last season’s Division 3 Final against Flint Powers Catholic. (Middle) Autumn Kloha prepares to pull up for a shot at Powers’ goal during the finale.