BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
GRAND LEDGE, Mich. – Winning a state championship is every soccer player’s dream.
Scoring three goals or gaining the clean sheet in the final day of the season is another dream come true.
Those dreams were all realized by Grand Rapids Christian Saturday afternoon at Grand Ledge High School.
John Cassiday, a junior forward, scored all three goals and senior goalkeeper Christian Dersham recorded five saves for the shutout – and the seventh-ranked Eagles went on to defeat 12th-ranked Mason, 3-0, in the Division 2 state finals for the school’s fourth state title in 25 years and second in three seasons.
Grand Rapids Christian (18-5-2) is now a perfect 4-0 in state title games, also winning titles in 1998, 2002 and 2021. The Eagles have landed in the Final Four a total of seven times dating back to 1988.
John Cassiday came off the bench his freshman year two seasons ago during the Eagles’ last state championship run while his older brother Nicholas Cassiday, now a sophomore at the University of Michigan, was a leader on that 2021 state championship team and an All-State Dream Team selection that season.
“This is great. I have to thank God and thank the team. I don’t really have words, I’m just so happy we can do this for our seniors, obviously, that are on the team with me. They mean the world to me,” said John Cassiday about his current and former teammates.
Cassiday, who finishes with 16 goals and seven assists, saw the Eagles run the gauntlet by beating five consecutive schools in the state tournament that were ranked entering the postseason and played a schedule that featured 11 different state-ranked opponents over two and a half months.
“We just try to take it one step at a time and one team at a time. We only focus what game is ahead of us and not get ahead of ourselves.,” continued Cassiday. “If you look at it in a sense that we have these (state-ranked) teams it could be over really quick. We just lock in and do what we do and focus one game at a time.
The Eagles, who finished with a nine-game win streak to cap the state championship campaign, outscored their seven postseason opponents 21-4 with three shutouts and only allowed one team the whole season to score more than two goals against them – and that was Division 3 state champion Hudsonville Unity Christian who sprung a 3-2 win on the Eagles back in early October in a non-conference matchup.
Overall, Grand Rapids Christian outscored its opposition 72-19 with 10 shutouts despite its brutally-touch Ottawa Kent Conference White Division and non-conference schedule. The Eagles were inconsistent early in the season behind a 4-3-2 start to the campaign but finished up 14-2-0 down the stretch.
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“Oh man, this is incredible. I can’t imagine a better team to do this with,” said senior goalkeeper Christian Dershem, who finishes with a 0.69 goals-against average, 10 shutouts, 78 saves and a quality .839 save percentage. “We did it two years ago and it feels better because last time I was on the bench (as a reserve in 2021). Plying in (the state finals) as a senior – there’s no better feeling.
“We knew we had to pick it up. Last year we didn’t have the effort and we tried but this year in practice we were working our butts off every single day. We got it done (this year),” continued Dershem, whose team was knocked out in the Division 2 district semifinals last season by Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, 1-0. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve imagined this (during the past year). At night every single night this week I’ve thought ‘let’s get a shutout. Let’s get a shutout.’ Last game we didn’t get one but we still won and now we get the shutout in the state championship. It’s unbelievable.”
Grand Rapids Christian wrapped up the storybook run with wins over state-ranked teams Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (3-1), Cedar Springs (2-1), Fruitport (1-0), top-ranked Holland Christian (1-0) and then Mason (3-0) with an 11-3 scoring edge in that span.
That doesn’t fall on blind eyes, according to fourth-year coach Aric Dershem, whose team had to defeat a string of ranked opponents to claim the second state title in three seasons. And that comes after the Eagles only finished fourth in a tacked OKC-White Division.
“I think we’re fortunate or unfortunate that we have such a tough conference race each year. We play against so many difficult teams in our conference (Alone) that it prepares us for this,” smiled Coach Dershem, knowing his team’s ultra-tough schedule in 2023. “We went from fourth in our conference to first in the state. That just shows you the type of conference we’re (into the state finals). We’re battle-tested coming in at the end of this run. We have some seniors (and juniors) that have been through this before. It really helps them because it’s a matter of who makes the fewest mistakes sometimes and help the other team create mistakes for you. They did such a great job responding in the second half after kind of a (lackadaisical first-half) performance from us.”
Grand Rapids Christian went on to become the more opportunistic team on the day. The Eagles outshot the Bulldogs 12-10 overall, including 6-5 with shots on frame, and even held a 3-1 edge on cornerkicks. More importantly, Grand Rapids Christian held the advantage in the most important barometer – the scoreboard – against a school that only had two losses coming into the state finals and held an 11-1-1 record during its last 13 games.
Mason (13-3-5) had outscored its previous five postseason opponents 18-3 heading into the finals and recorded 11 shutouts with a 72-15 scoring edge for the entire season. The Bulldogs couldn’t find any rhythm for much of the game against a physical and taller Grand Rapids Christian side that boasts 11 players that stand between 6-foot and 6-foot-6.
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“First thing is Grand Rapids Christian is a phenomenal team. At all times they had the ability to strike and strike quick,” said Mason coach Jacob Derby, who led the Bulldogs to their first state finals appearance since 2015 and sixth overall. “Coming out in the second half we couldn’t get back into the rhythm of the game and they were and they came out put two (goals) in quick and that kind of forced our hand. We kind of had to play a little bit different brand of soccer than maybe we haven’t played all year. Credit to (Grand Rapids Christian). They are the ones that made the game the way it was and they deserve it.”
Both Cassiday and Gershem were reserves on the 2021 state championship team with Cassiday getting minutes in that state championship contest. Both were clutch is anchoring the school’s fourth state title Saturday.
Cassiday scored his 14th goal of the season with 38:33 remaining in the second half that proved to be the game-winner, corralling a rebound following a shot from All-State Dream Team candidate senior Jackson Mindling and burying it into the back of the net.
The Mindling-Cassiday Connection joined forces once again 2:45 later. Mindling, who finished with 27 goals and 11 assists on the season, set up Cassiday with his second goal of the game and 15th of the campaign with a slotted pass through traffic where Cassiday broke free and blasted it home with 35:48 remaining in the contest.
After freshman teammate Liam Jensen was yanked down in the penalty box with 5:59 to play, Cassiday made the Bulldogs pay one final time when he converted the penalty kick goal for his 16th and final tally of the season which capped the scoring on the grand stage.
“I couldn’t be happier. Winning the state championship and being able to score three times in the state finals is incredible,” added Cassiday, one of the state’s top juniors. “In the state finals you never know whose turn it is to step up and today it was John Cassiday with the three goals,” added Coach Dershem. “But this was a complete team effort. Our defense was outstanding. We never really allowed them to get into a flow after the first few minutes. We didn’t allow Mason to get very many scoring opportunities and we buried three of them. We only really gave up a few scoring opportunities in the entire game.”