By Tom Spencer
Special for Second Half
Soccer games in Michigan have long consisted of two 40-minute halves.
Not so until recently for games involving Ogemaw Heights. Historically the contest was often over at halftime due the MHSAA 8-goal differential rule. Sadly, the Falcons had become quite accustomed to getting back on the bus after the first 40 minutes.
Jack Vliet, the Falcons’ first-year athletic director, and Tom Zaske, the fourth-year boys soccer coach, are way too familiar with the rule widely known as a “mercy.” They were well aware of the program’s suffering before they got officially involved.
Zaske’s first experiences came as a father of a freshman soccer player, and then as the JV coach. Vliet’s a first awareness was from being a member of the community.
“It’s been a tough road for the soccer program,” Vliet said. “The adversity these kids have faced ... and now they’re coming out on top.
“They’re adjusting on the fly,” he continued. “What a great job the coaches have done, and now we’re experiencing community buy-in.”
Now, the Falcons have the potential to win their third District title in the last four years on Saturday. They are facing Clare, a team they have defeated 8-0 and 7-0 this year. The game is at Clare, and the winner advances to play Elk Rapids in a Regional Semifinal on Oct. 28.
Elk Rapids, which is headed for its third-straight Regional appearance, has a storied past with multiple MHSAA Finals runs and two Division 4 championships. The Elks possess the number one Michigan Power Rating (MPR) in D3 this year. They are 17-2-4 and won the Lake Michigan conference title again this year. They also have taken on strong D1 and D2 teams, including this year’s Big North Conference champion Traverse City West and runner-up Petoskey. The Elks picked up a 4-0 win over Petoskey after a 0-0 tie with the Northmen the first time they met.
Ogemaw’s history of mercy losses was the greatest when the Falcons were in the Big North. Now the Falcons play in the Northern Michigan Soccer League. No mercy losses this year. In fact, they suffered only one defeat, 2-1, at the hands of McBain Northern Michigan Christian. The Falcons erased the memory of the league loss with a 4-0 win over NMC earlier this month, and they have eight mercy wins this season.
Despite having the most wins in school history and a record of 16-1-2, Ogemaw hasn’t cracked the rankings yet. They are 13th in the MPR index used to determine seeding of the top two teams at the District level. The index is based on a team's success and strength of schedule, according to results posted to the MHSAA Website and including games against other MHSAA Tournament teams.
Zaske has his players fearing not what may be ahead. He’ll be thrilled if Ogemaw gets an opportunity to take on Elk Rapids next week. Elk Rapids’ past is what Vliet wants in Ogemaw’s future.
“We believe it doesn’t matter who you play,” Zaske stressed. “We tell the kids ‘if you can play your game, you can compete with anybody.’
“We’re going to prepare that way,” he continued. “We’ll try to play our game better than they (Elks) can defend it.”
Zaske’s four-years stint with the Falcons’ varsity was preceded by a couple of years with the JV team. He’s also been involved as a coach of his players during youth league seasons.
He immediately began to create a winning culture with the goal of someday winning an MHSAA Finals championship.
“We set out to get rid of the stigma of getting on the bus and only playing 40 minutes,” Zaske said. “Those kids were so used to it. It was a culture change.
“I keep kids focused on playing our game and playing our game well,” he continued.
Senior leadership has been a key to the Falcons’ success this year. Senior goalie and captain Jake Bonus has nine shutouts, bolstered by the midfield and a strong defense led by Joe Mulky.
Jack Juarez, a senior and three-year starter, led the team in assists the past three seasons. He has scored 13 goals and recorded 19 assists this fall. Senior Lucas Courtemanche is the leading goal scorer, with 21. Wyatt Veltman, another senior, is next with 20 goals, followed by junior Isaac Divine with 17.
If Ogemaw doesn’t get to the Finals this year, the Falcons will strive for them again next fall. The program’s development may be ahead of schedule.
“The kids really worked hard all summer, and we had things to look forward to,” Zaske noted. “I think we’re in a better place than I thought we’d be in four years.
“The kids see what hard work, teamwork does,” he continued. “It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. They know they need to put in the time and put in the effort. There’s a goal in mind.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTO: (Top) Ogemaw Heights’ Trevor Brown (27) maintains control of the ball against Tawas this season. (Photo by Mike Juarez.)