by JACKIE HOLLAND-DECKER
As the announcer counted down the final seconds of the district final Saturday afternoon at Grand Haven High School, the Rockford girls soccer team watched the championship slip between their fingers.
The Rams had outshot Reeths-Puffer 15-7 in the title game, but their fiery opponents outscored them 3-2 to capture the win. The Rockets have now advanced to the regional opener against Okemos Tuesday night at Holt.
“This is a disappointing loss,” admitted Coach Amira Ponne, whose team ends the season with a 10-9-1 record. “It has happened to us all season, but it’s too bad it had to happen today. We played possession so beautifully. We controlled the field. We were better, and they know it. We just played so great, but their keeper did a good job. She wasn’t fumbling anything we put to her.”
The Rockets’ overly aggressive play earned them many fouls, a yellow card, and plenty of jeers from the Rockford crowd, but that aggressiveness and opportunistic thinking surely paved the way for their victory. Senior Emily Lindebaum, who sat out for 10 minutes after earning the yellow card, scored their final two goals by muscling her way into key scoring positions.
The Rams, who tied the Rockets earlier in the season, lit up the scoreboard first when senior Al Huyser’s precision passing found freshman Erika Bradfield open in the midfield. Bradfield’s shot floated up over the outstretched fingers of the Rockets’ goalkeeper Erin Caughey with 15:53 left in the first half.
Back-to-back goals 10 minutes later gave the Rockets a 2-1 advantage going into the half. Senior Emily Swain tied the game when she broke away from the Rockford defense, charged up the middle, and shot the ball past Rockford goalkeeper Karlee Fluegel with 5:06 left in the half. Just 24 seconds later, Lindebaum muscled her way into position and made an unobstructed shot from close range.
The Rams tied it up with 15 minutes left in the game by a beautifully placed corner shot from junior Emily Cowan. Although Huyser had stepped up to take the shot and already had the ball in the corner, Ponne called for Cowan to take the shot with the hopes that Huyser or her twin sister Kate might get a head on the ball to score. Cowan, who had to run all the way across the field to take the shot, curved the ball into the net.
“Emily has been on fire for us since the Grandville game,” said Ponne. “She has really found her game and has become a solid player for us.”
Cowan repeated the feat eight minutes later, but the referee said the ball had not gone past the goal line.
The opportunistic Rockets scored the go-ahead goal with 4:56 remaining, when Lindebaum took advantage of a flurry of activity in the box and softly tapped it in past the distracted Fluegel. The Rams took three shots in the last few minutes, but couldn’t find the net.
The Rams advanced to the finals by beating Grand Haven 1-0 in the district opener Wednesday night and Hudsonville 3-1 Friday. Freshman Katie Hartnett scored on Wednesday, and scoring in the semifinal were A. Huyser, Jordyn Ryfiak and Sydney Benda.
The Rams will lose 10 seniors from the team, all of whom are four-year academic letter winners. Ponne said the loss will be huge, but the underclassmen have had a year to learn from them.
“Losing these seniors is almost like this team will have to start from scratch. There are key players who will be lost, and even those who don’t start are always there screaming for their team,” Ponne said. “This class is such a close group of friends. Those 10 seniors have played together all of their lives. We have lots of talent for next year, but part of our planning was to look at what we would be losing and get these top-notch underclassmen under the guidance of these girls.”
The Rams placed the most girls on the All-District team. Earning first team honors are co-captains K. Huyser, Sam Decker and Benda, as well as Bradfield. Earning second team honors were A. Huyser, Cowan and Ryfiak.