BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
GRAND LEDGE, Mich. – Finishing.
It’s one of the most important parts of the game soccer.
A team must find a way to be able to be opportunistic and finish its scoring chances, no matter the situation. Hudsonville Unity Christian more than delivered in the finishing department especially in the second half Saturday afternoon.
After not being able to escape its district the past three years, second-ranked Unity Christian scored two second-half goals over the last 19:18 to capture its first state title since 2018 with a 3-2, come-from-behind victory over top-ranked Birmingham Detroit Country Day in the Division 3 state finals at Grand Ledge High School.
The Crusaders (20-2-2) only fired five shots on frame the whole afternoon and came away with the three goals and the school’s sixth MHSAA state championship in their 12th Final Four appearances since the MHSAA took over the sport in 1982. Unity Christian also captured state crowns in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2018 to go along with the 2023 state title.
Unity Christian watched its girls soccer program win its 11th state title in 15 total trips to the state finals back in June, while the 2023 boys soccer program cemented its legacy in the school’s rich soccer history. Unity Christian’s boys soccer team is now 6-4 in MHSAA state title games while the Crusaders’ girls soccer program is 11-4 in MHSAA state title games.
“We have a few guys who have been a part of our varsity team quite a few years and I think they’ve been hungry,” smiled Unity Christian coach Ian Billin, who is 34-6-4 after only two seasons replacing the legendary Randy Heethuis. “The last four years we haven’t been able to get out of our district. I think, even throughout the summer, seeing this group work together this summer and knowing the guys we were going to have I think we knew we would have the skill. We just needed to have the buy-in from all of our guys and (have) the effort. You know when we added that I knew this team could be special.
“We have some guys who can create, make things happen and this group really bought in defensively – a while team effort,” continued Billin, whose squad was knocked out last season in the district semifinals by fellow state power Grand Rapids South Christian. “Today we faced a little adversity. But we were able to battle back. They were hungry. They’ve been hungry and I’m so proud of this group for being able to accomplish this. It’s great for them. They really did kind of put their stamp on the program.”
Trailing 2-1 in the second half, Unity Christian used its counterattack to net the game-tying and game-winning goals to prevail over the state of Michigan’s most prestigious program in Detroit Country Day.
Taking a pass from senior Tyler Mulder, senior All-State Dream Team candidate Colin Nieuwenhuis was able to get open and rip a 20-yarder into the corner of the goal with 19:18 remaining to tie the game at 2-2.
The eventual game-winner came with just 9:23 remaining in the contest. Mulder’s cross was flicked back by sophomore Logan Lutke over to fellow sophomore Jack Kamminga, who buried his opportunity from close range into the back of the net. The Crusaders only generated one more shot after that point and hung on for the victory.
GET YOUR MSN GEAR NOW
Freshman goalkeeper Alen Deppe recorded eight saves between the pipes to record the win in net for the Crusaders, who last won a state title in 2018 when Nieuwenhuis was in the seventh grade.
“I dreamt about this as a kid, but its incredible feeling to come out here and do this,” said Nieuwenhuis, a college prospect who finished with a team-best 32 goals on the season. “We have a lot of history at our school and we saw our girls (soccer) team win it all last summer. But it’s incredible to be a part of this as a player.”
Unity Christian was able to gain the early advantage when senior center back Isaac Eppinga headed home a cornerkick from Nieuwenhuis with 33:20 to go in the first half. It marked Eppinga’s first goal of the season.
Top-ranked Country Day – which was making its state record 22nd Final Four appearance in school history and 17th MHSAA state finals appearance which is another state record – was able to tie it with 13:18 to go on a nice individual effort by Alex Eby. The junior center back scooped up a clearing attempt around 20 yards in front of the goal and blasted a low shot barely off the ground that sailed through traffic before slipping inside the right post.
Country Day (19-3-2) opened up a 2-1 lead with 35:25 left in the second half. Senior forward Ammar Siddiqui’s bending cornerkick into the box was flicked by junior outside back Elijah Khaldun over to senior midfielder Stephen Bretano, who cranked home his shot into the back of the net from 15 yards out.
The Yellowjackets controlled play and out-possessed the Crusaders by a wide margin in the second half but could not net a third goal. Country Day held a 20-10 overall shots edge for the game, including 10-5 with shots on goal, and also held a 5-1 differential in cornerkicks on the afternoon.
“(Unity Christian) is a great team as well,” offered ninth-year Country Day coach Steve Bossert. “I think both teams played wonderfully. It was a really entertaining state championship game and you saw a few really great goals. There’s a reasons they’ve got a bunch of All-State players on their team as well. We kind of went back and forth. Obviously I wish we had one or two more opportunities. But I’m proud of the boys and proud of the way we played all year.”
Country Day had only lost in the state finals once before and that came back in 1998. The Yellowjacekts had claimed 15 MHSAA state titles and another in the late 1970s in the old North Suburban Coaches Association state tournament and has been one of the all-time winningest programs in state history.
Bossert’s squad came up agonizingly short of another state crown.
“It’s hard to stop (shots) like that 100 times (during the season) right. So eventually they get their chances and it’s not they missed them – they buried them,” noted Bossert of Unity Christian’s goals. “We probably outshot them by a lot. I’m not sure what the tally was, but the second goal by No. 7 (Nieuwenhuis) was unbelievable and the third goal at the end was tough. To win a game like this you have to make more plays than the other team and (Unity Christian) did it today.
“It’s just disappointing that we didn’t come away with the win,” added Bossert. “It’s hard to think about anything else right now. We played the way we wanted to play today and they beat us today. I think we play this game 10 times it’s probably 5-5 or 6-4, you know. It’s two really good teams. There’s a reason why we were (No. 1 and No. 2) all year. They were No. 1 for a while and they lost a game so we jumped into the No. 1 spot for a while. I mean both teams were terrific today.”
GET THE HIGHLIGHTS HERE
WATCH THE STATE FINALS HIGHLIGHTS FOR $7.99
PURCHASE THE HIGHLIGHTS FOR $19.99
FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES:
HUDSONVILLE UNITY CHRISTIAN:
MHSAA State Championships: 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2023 (6)
MHSAA State Runners-Up: 1982, 1984, 2005, 2011 (4)
MHSAA Final Four Appearances: 1982, 1984, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2023 (12)
Michigan/North Suburban Soccer Coaches Association State Championships: None
Michigan/North Suburban Soccer Coaches Association State Runners-Up: 1975 (1)
BIRMINGHAM DETROIT COUNTRY DAY:
MHSAA State Championships: 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2018 (15)
MHSAA State Runners-Up: 1998, 2023 (2)
MHSAA Final Four Appearances: 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2017, 2018, 2022, 2023
Michigan/North Suburban Soccer Coaches Association State Championships: 1977 (1)