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BOYS SOCCER: In first Final Four since 2005, Brighton trying to make the most of its appearance



Twitter: @MiSoccerNetwork

BRIGHTON, Mich. – When you play in a power pocket of soccer, winning championships is never easy.

With state-ranked teams and programs with history all over your schedule or playing inside a very tough conference may make for some great clash of the titans so to speak. But winning titles is another thing.

Just ask Brighton.

Its boys soccer team has always been good, even dating back to the 1980s. The Bulldogs are always competitive. Some years more than others but always competitive. In a more-often-than-not situation, Brighton will finish above five-hundred and currently competing in one of the state’s tougher conferences for soccer – the two-division Kensington Lakes Activities Association – there’s always an assortment of quality teams. In most seasons, some of the best teams in the state.

The KLAA each year rivals the likes of the Oakland Activities Association Red Division, Ottawa Kent Conference Red Division, Catholic High School League Central Division and the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference as some of the top large-school conferences for not only soccer, but for a wide variety of sports.

“The competition is always good,” noted Mark Howell, Brighton’s varsity boys soccer coach for the past several years. “The KLAA is always good. There’s some very good teams here every year. That never changes.”


True, nothing changes in the KLAA. This year there are several quality sides from the 16-school mega conference. There are two schools still competing in the MHSAA boys soccer state tournament’s Division 1 Final Four and both call the KLAA West Division home. Both Northville and Brighton are in that coveted Final Four this season and that strengthens the legacy of the KLAA being a great soccer conference.

But something has eluded the likes of Brighton over the years – and that is finishing the season on top of the pyramid. The Bulldogs have never captured a state title in the sport of boys soccer. Even the Bulldogs’ girls soccer team is 0-4 in state title games.

Brighton’s boys soccer team is two wins away from that elusive first title, something that has not fallen short of his players’ eyes.

“That’s one of the goals. But I’m always reminding them that we have to take it one game at a time or we won’t get there,” said Howell. “There’s too many good teams out there. But they know. It’s no secret.”

Brighton finished as the Division 1 state runner-up 25 years ago back in 1998. The Bulldogs lost in the title match to nearby rival Novi (4-0) when the two schools were in the Kensington Valley Conference. The school also lost in the state semifinals in 1992, 2001, 2002 and 2005.

That was 18 years ago, even though the school has fielded several quality teams since then and even produced several All-State players and sent kids to various college rosters.

This year’s team has all of that. The Bulldogs returned a ton of talent at the beginning of the season, led by junior Devlin McGinnis (M/F) who earned All-KLAA honors and All-State Honorable Mention accolades in 2022. Senior Hunter Haglund (M/D) also earned All-KLAA honors a year ago.

Juniors Owen Buckley (F) and Andrew Bowman (M), seniors Ryan Hemphill (D), Jimmie Johnson (M/F) and Anthony Klebba (D/M) and sophomore Reece Mayer (G), who has shared the goalkeeping duties with senior three-sport athlete Ryan Burchfield, are all back after starting a ton of games last season.

There’s 11 seniors, 12 juniors and one sophomore on this year’s roster, plus some late-season callups for the state tournament ride. Then there’s senior Collin Robertson (F/M) who has made his high school debut this season after spending the last three years with the Michigan Wolves MLS Next Academy team. He’s a NCAA Division I recruit with many pursuers and a missing link for the Bulldogs after the team finished 7-7-4 overall a year ago following a district semifinal exit to 2021 state champion Okemos (1-0). The team finished third in the tough KLAA-West at 6-4-4 in league play.

On the 2023 All-KLAA Team, Haglund, Robertson, Buckley, Klebba, McGinnis, Meyer and Burchfield all were tabbed with first-team status. Hemphill and Bowman, along with senior Marek Alent (CM) who is in his first season as a starter, earned honorable-mention all-league accolades.

The offensive is patient but explosive with its triangle, fluid-moving weapons of McGinnis, Robertson and Buckley leading the charge along with a host of other attackers.

“There’s always someone stepping up each game,” noted Howell.

Klebba, Bowman, Johnson and Alent are some of the others in the midfield or on defense. Ditto for Hemphill, one of the top players on a stout back line the past two seasons.

Brighton has outscored the opposition 53-12 this season with 13 shutouts and 10-1 over five state tournament games with four clean sheets in that span. The Bulldogs are 12-0-1 in their last 11 games and playing great soccer, outscoring the opposition 29-5 with eight shutouts during that red-hot streak.

Brighton is the only team to defeat KLAA-West Division and KLAA Tournament champion Northville (2-1 and 1-0) this season and the Bulldogs finished second in the eight-school KLAA-West this fall. The team also won the second-place contest in the KLAA Crossover match with Dearborn Fordson. As for Okemos, Brighton avenged that state tournament loss from 2022 in this year’s pre-district round, 1-0. The Bulldogs also own several victories over schools that have spent at least one week inside the state rankings.

Senior Cade Arnold (M/F) and juniors Luke Compton (M/F), Mitch Tappen (D) and Braeden Allan (CB) have also played well and contributed in ways beyond the scorebook.

“Both offensively and defensively we have been very solid,” added Howell. “WE have a lot of guys contributing and I think we have some depth.”

That’s an understatement.

Brighton is enjoying one of its best teams in school history in 2023. The 14th-ranked Bulldogs will face ninth-ranked Rockford (17-3-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at East Lansing’s Lynn C. Adams Stadium in the state semifinals. Rockford finished as the state runner-up to Rochester Adams in last year’s state finals after reaching the Division 1 Final Four for the first time.

Second-ranked Northville will face off with third-ranked Troy Athens in the other D-1 semifinals at Athens. Those Red Hawks have been to the Final Four 13 times in history. The other three teams – Brighton, Rockford and Northville – have never won a state championship in boys soccer. Rockford and Brighton are 0-1 in state title games, while Northville has never reached the state championship round, only stalling out in the state semifinals twice before the 2023 campaign.

There were also several other quality programs that were ranked in Division 1 this season that have never reached the promised land.

“We hope this year can be our year,” offered Howell. “We have all of the pieces (to the puzzle). But we’ll have to beat some very good teams if we are to get (to the finals).”

Perhaps Brighton is due.

(To report state tournament results, email pertinent details to both and

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