by JACKIE HOLLAND-DECKER
Sorrow played a heavy hand against the Rockford girls soccer team in the last two weeks, but for those 80 minutes out on the field, the Rams were able to overcome their grief and play great soccer. They won two of their three games in the midst of their despair, and even their loss felt like a victory.
Reeling from the death of popular Freshman Center health teacher Jan Egbert two weeks ago, the ninth-graders and others who had known her were downcast, but with the help of their teammates, they easily defeated OK Red rival Jenison 7-0 on April 23. Last week Wednesday, April 28, as the pain of that death was lifting, the Rams played a terrific game against Class B leader Spring Lake, holding them to a 1-1 tie until just three minutes remained before losing 2-1.
Euphoric after that loss which felt like a win, the Rams went home happy, but their joy soon turned to mourning again when they learned of the unexpected death of senior Stephen May, a three-sport athlete and all-round good guy. When the girls took the field Friday night, April 30, against league rival Grand Haven, their distress was evident. They picked each other up, however, and beat the visiting Buccaneers 2-1 to put their league record at 3-0.
“We were still trying to heal from Jan’s death and now this,” said Coach Amira Ponne, as she exited the field. “With all of the tragedy in the last two weeks, they’ve been through a lot, but it has made us stronger. The girls love each other so much. They are such a special group of girls. The seniors are so tight; they have played with each other forever. The freshmen cared so much to see their mentors upset. They stepped up support-wise.”
Grand Haven has always been a conference rival for the Rams, but Friday night, they were the least of the team’s worries. The Rams went in wanting to win and get the game over with. Under the circumstances, they played quite well, dominating the shooting (15-7) and controlling the ball for much of the game. They passed well. They communicated, and they scored.
“I think that part of it [success] is where we are in the season,” said Ponne. “I’ve figured out where to try people. Finding that chemistry takes time. I think the change in our formation has really ignited our fire and sense of confidence throughout the whole field.”
The Buccaneers lit up the scoreboard first in the game when Sarah Kober’s free kick right outside the 18-yard line was bobbled by sophomore goalkeeper Mikaela Harrell, and Grand Haven’s Katie VanZytveld took advantage of the drop to score from right in front of the goal line with 27 minutes into the game.
The Rams tied the game nine minutes later off a penalty at the top of the box. Senior Jenna Lysne was tripped as she went for a shot. When the Rams lined up for the free kick, it was senior Sam Decker who stepped up to take it. Decker summed up Grand Haven’s wall, figured out where to place the kick, and put the ball into the high right corner. The Grand Haven goalkeeper never had a chance to defend against it.
“That was an incredible game she played,” said Ponne. “When she took that shot, I knew it was going in. That corner was so open, and it was the greatest kick.”
The Rams took the lead midway through the second half and never looked back. Senior Sondra Weaver passed the ball into the middle to classmate Kate Huyser, who muscled her way down the middle with a Grand Haven defender so close to her on the left that the two might have been glued together. Huyser gained a step on her and shot the ball into the left side of the net.
Huyser’s goal was like déjà vu from the Spring Lake game on Wednesday. In that contest, she outworked two defenders as she charged up the middle, moved past the goalie, and used a soft touch to put it in. The goal put the Rams up 1-0 nine minutes into the first half against the undefeated Lakers.
“How great is Kate Huyser!” exclaimed Ponne, when asked about the two goals.
The Rams’ tenacity surely surprised the Lakers, who arrived boasting an undefeated season and two Division I recruits: Michigan State-bound Annie Steinlage and Valparaiso recruit Lauren Gagnon.
The Rams shot even with the Lakers, 7-7, and despite a young backfield that night—freshmen Gabby Pilgrim and Erika Bradfield, junior Allison Hazy, and Decker—Spring Lakes’ stars didn’t have much of a chance to shine.
“The word that comes to mind from Wednesday’s game is pride,” said Ponne. “In all those girls, you could see how proud they were. It was the day we proved that we are great and things are coming together.”
The Lakers tied the game 10 minutes later when Steinlage faked out the defense and put the ball in from close range. But it wasn’t until just three minutes remained that the Lakers got the upper hand. Despite a strong defensive effort by the Rams, Spring Lake’s Jenny Kalejs got on top of the ball behind the backfield and finished it easily to grab the win.