by JACKIE HOLLAND-DECKER
Missed opportunities have plagued the Rockford girls soccer team all season long. Many times they have outplayed their opponents, only to lose in the last few minutes of the contest. When they found themselves trailing host Grandville 2-0 in the OK Red conference tournament opener Thursday night, May 20, at Grand View Elementary School, they had a decision to make: Let the Bulldogs have the victory, or find it within themselves to pull together and win. They chose the latter, erasing the 2-0 halftime deficit to win 3-2.
“The biggest thing is what we proved to ourselves,” said Coach Amira Ponne. “We can come from two goals down and score three goals to win. The girls trusted us in the decisions we made. They believed it and it worked.”
In an effort to jumpstart the comeback, the coaches switched the Rams’ formation at halftime. While a flat-back four defense has worked for the Rams most of the time this season, Ponne changed it to a diamond four with a sweeper and a stopper, moving freshman defender Erika Bradfield up into the middle offense, bringing senior midfielder Al Huyser back to the stopper position, and putting senior Sam Decker at sweeper. The switch proved valuable.
“We’ve always wanted to do it but felt she [Bradfield] was solid back there on defense,” said Ponne. “She plays nice through balls and is very aggressive. She makes a lot of stuff happen. Al was winning the 50/50 balls back there. We needed something different back there, and she is so patient. We knew she would step up.”
Although Ponne was hesitant to switch the defense because the girls hadn’t practiced it, something goalkeeper coach Scott Hazel said spurred her into action. “Scott said ‘2-0 or 30-0, it makes no difference’,” said Ponne.
In the first half, the Rams seemed to always be a step behind and just off the mark on their shots. Although Rockford had many opportunities, the speedy, aggressive Bulldogs were constantly intercepting passes and moving to the ball faster, and their defense was shutting down any forward movement.
“We knew coming in that Grandville’s strength was their speed and that they worked well together as a team,” said Ponne. “They are fast everywhere on the field. We had no time for more than two touches.”
Grandville scored two-and-a-half minutes into the game when Abby Ploeg passed right in front of the net to a waiting Olivia Emery, who headed it in past Rockford goalkeeper Karlee Fluegel. With five minutes remaining in the half, Katie Gabriel raced past the Rockford defense and shot into the left side of the net.
The Rams, who lost to Grandville 2-1 earlier in the week in regular conference play, were quite downcast at halftime. To fire up her teammates, Decker told the girls, “The coaches can stand here and tell us what to do, but we are the only ones who can change it.”
Change it they did. The Rams came out on fire in the second half. Senior Kate Huyser, Rockford’s leading scorer, started the comeback when she turned senior Jenna Lysne’s perfectly placed pass in front of the goal into a blistering shot with 27:30 remaining on the clock. The goal turned things around for the Rams.
“Kate told us that she shot it and said to herself ‘This is going in,’” said Ponne. “She is our trunk. She is the one who can get it done. Once she scored, it was like we got a breath of fresh air.”
The Rams bombarded the Grandville net throughout the second half, but it was senior Jordan Diffenderfer who tied the game. Always a force to be reckoned with because of her personal philosophy of never backing down, “Diff” made her way to the middle of the traffic and took advantage of the opportunity. Bradfield’s shot was deflected off to the right side of the net by Grandville’s goalie, but a Rockford forward sent it back into the box where three Rams were scrambling for a shot. Diffenderfer got a foot on it and sent it past the confused goalkeeper.
“The coaches are always yelling at us to finish or get the rebound,” Diffenderfer explained. “Sondra [Weaver] went up and got it from the goalie [to set up the play].”
Sophomore Jordyn Ryfiak sealed the win with 9:20 left to play when her shot from the right side took an odd bounce right over the goalkeeper’s head.
“It feels really good to score,” said Ryfiak. “I felt like we needed to win this game.”
The Rockford varsity girls showed no mercy to Traverse City West on Saturday, May 22 in a 6-0 shutout on the Falcons’ home field.
Strong passing and ball control were key elements of the Rams’ success, as well as the constant barrage of shots. The Rams scored their first goal just five-and-a-half minutes into the game and their last with 1:23 remaining. The only person able to stop the succession of shots was Falcon senior goalkeeper Taylor Ross.
Leading the scoring for the Rams was junior Sydney Benda, who scored the first goal off an assist by senior K. Huyser and the fourth goal with help from junior Beccie Manshaem. Benda also had an assist to K. Huyser. Also scoring were junior Lanie Esch off an assist by K. Huyser, freshman Missy Biener off an assist by A. Huyser, and Ryfiak off an assist by A. Huyser.