When you sign up to play soccer at Buckley High School, you just don’t join a team. You get a chance to become family and make history.
And, bet on being welcomed into the den.
That’s always been true under coaches John Vermilya and Ryan Jones, who built a single co-ed team into a Division 4 boys soccer contender toward the end of the last decade.
Buckley then added a girls program as well in 2019 – and this spring, with soccer back and players leading the way who were part of the co-ed team’s success and girls team’s start, history-making aspirations are alive again.
“Jonesy and I always tell them, ‘We love you as people more than we love you as players,’” stressed Vermilya, who serves as head coach for both teams. “And, especially before big games, we have them look us in the eyes and say no matter what happens ... win, lose or draw ... we love you.
“Whether you perform well or don’t perform well when you join our team, you join our family.”
And it was family — his own — that got Vermilya back into coaching in 2013. Buckley struggled its first few years under Vermilya, including a winless season. But, after ending that 2013 season in the District Final against a storied Leland program, Buckley has reached Regionals multiple times and even advanced to the Division 4 Semifinals in 2017. No Buckley soccer team had made it that far before.
Vermilya, a former college and professional soccer player, had been on the coaching staff of the Charlotte Eagles USSL pro team and head-coached Buckley in the early 2000s. The Bears varsity boys leadership slot opened up again as his daughter, Isabell, entered high school.
“She’s the reason I am in coaching today,” Vermilya acknowledged. “She came home from school in the eighth grade in May and said to me, ‘Dad, I just found out girls can play on the boys team so I am playing boys soccer next fall.’
“I knew the coaching position was vacant, so if my daughter is going to play I am going back to coaching.”
Vermilya treated all the Bears like family, but especially his daughters. Isabell played four years at Buckley and went on to college soccer. Daughter Lily played four years and recorded two goals and three assists in boys competition. Daughter Sophie is in her fourth year playing for the Bears. Youngest daughter Gabrielle is a freshman on the girls varsity this spring.
The girls team started as a club in the Spring of 2018. The Bears went 4-6-2 in 2019, their first official year, losing to Houghton Lake in their first-ever District game. (The Lakers went on to the Regional Final.)
The girls are off to a 1-4 start heading into tonight’s conference game with a rebuilding Kingsley team. But they stand perched to make history. COVID-19 took away the junior seasons for the current seniors, and this spring they’re hoping to win their first-ever District match. The Bears are hosting the District tournament and also have thoughts of winning the title. Big Rapids Crossroads Academy, Hart, Mason County Central, and McBain Northern Michigan Christian also will be in that field.
Twin sisters Jordan and Taylor Emery earned Regional championship medals as freshmen along with Sophie Vermilya. Buckley had eight girls on that co-ed team, including one of John Vermilya’s assistant coaches today, Joy Nolf.
The three girls remaining as part of this season’s team will never forget their start in high school soccer.
“It was super cool because nobody at Buckley (had) made it that far before,” noted Taylor Emery. “The boys basketball team also made it that same year.
“It was something being able to be a part of one of the teams (at) Buckley (that) made history.”
Known in Buckley’s history as the “Fab 5,” Austin Harris, Joey Weber, Denver Cade, Brock Beeman and Ridge Beeman led Buckley on the 2017 run that included shootout wins in the Regionals. They set a school record with 20 wins. That group also led the Bears boys basketball team to the 2017 and 2018 Class D Finals.
“When you play with the boys all those years, you don’t think you’re a very good player,” Sophie Vermilya admitted. “But then you play with the girls, you find out you are actually a pretty decent player.”
Jordan Emery enjoyed her time with the boys team but is thrilled Buckley now has enough girls for a team.
“Guys and girls play completely different,” she pointed out. “When you’re watching you don’t realize it, but when you play it (you) see a really big difference and you feel a really big difference.
“I was just super happy to see all the girls come out, get together and put a team together for the first time.”
Coach Vermilya has only four other players with experience on this year’s girls squad, but they are all very coachable. He loves coaching boys, but finds the girls even more rewarding.
“What I find with the girls is they are way more apt to play soccer properly than boys are,” he said. “You usually only have to tell girls once what you want the shape of the team to look like or how you want them to play, and maybe a reminder.
“In a lot of ways it is much more rewarding to coach them because the vision the coach has of how (he) wants them to play, they’ll go out and execute that to the best of their ability.”
Vermilya, who played soccer as a kid in Haiti and in college at Indiana Wesleyan University, has five children with his wife, Darcy. He is likely to get a chance to coach his son, Benjamin, who played on Buckley’s middle school team this fall.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
PHOTOS: Buckley is led by seniors Taylor Emery (2), Sophie Vermilya (18) and Jordan Emery (13), with head coach John Vermilya (far left) and assistant Joy Nolf. (Photos by Tom Spencer.)