BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
ROCKFORD, Mich. – What can Rockford do for an encore following up the best boys soccer season in school history?
Win another district championship, of course.
For what is believed to be the first time in school history, the Rams captured back-to-back district titles in 2022 and 2023 and have climbed back into the top 10 if the Division 1 top 15 rankings.
For years, Rockford had sat in the background watching other Grand Rapids area powerhouses such as East Kentwood, Grand Haven, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central and several others advance deep into the postseason. Prior to 2022, the Rams had only captured three district titles in its history.
“We had to earn it this year,” admitted fourth-year Rockford coach Tim Boelman. “With the injuries and losing 12 players from last year and everything else, we still won a very tough district last week.”
GET YOUR MSN GEAR NOW
This year Rockford was placed in another tough district along with Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern, longtime nemesis East Kentwood, Caledonia, Byron Center and others. On the opening night Byron Center posted a huge upset by shocking state-ranked East Kentwood (2-0) in the pre-district round. Forest Hills Northern was moved up to D-1 from D-2 by just a handful of students after reaching the D-2 Final Four last season.
“I think Byron Center did us a huge favor because we turned around and beat Byron Center and we didn’t give up many chances,” noted Boelman. “We were totally expecting to play (East Kentwood) again and they have some very good individual players. The same thing with Forest Hills Northern. We found a way to win that game as well. This wasn’t an easy district – it never is – and so many times in the past we were the ones going home.”
Ranked the entire 2022 campaign, Rockford finished 21-1-1 last season, captured the Ottawa Kent Conference Red Division title and followed that up with a rare district title and very first regional crown. In the Final Four, the Rams shocked powerful Novi Detroit Catholic Central 3-0 – the Shamrocks were ranked either first or second all season in Division 1 – and advanced to the D-1 state title game.
Rockford came up short against fellow top-10 ranked Rochester Adams, falling to the Highlanders 2-0 in the state title game.
Gone are 12 players from that roster, including 10 via graduation, one that is playing MLS Next Academy and one that opted not to return. The cupboard was not bare, however, as the Rams were in and out of the rotation this season in terms of the D-1 rankings.
Part of that was injuries early in the season and part was the overall strength of schedule.
“I’ll bet our schedule was as good as anyone’s,” beamed Boelman. “We’ve played some great teams this season. In the beginning of the season we played Noblesville, Indiana, and they have been to the state championship match in their state the last two years. WE tied 1-1 in that one. We lost to (Cincinnati) Moeller and they’re one of the top teams in Ohio again this year, ranked No. 1 I believe. WE lost that 1-0. WE beat (New Baltimore) Anchor Bay, Canton and Okemos, and those programs are normally strong, and we lost to (Grand Rapids) Forest Hills Central. We played (East Kentwood) in our league opener lost that one 3-2. We didn’t get the results we wanted but we were competitive. It was a tough schedule throughout the season.
Still, the injuries started to mount in the first week. Junior Kyle Deming, last year’s backup to now-MLS Next keeper Teagan Gumbs, hurt his hip and didn’t come back until October and even then he’s been limited. Senior Sam Himmelspach, the junior-varsity goalkeeper last season who was projected a year ago to be the No. 3 goalie this season, has stepped in and done an admirable job in his first season on varsity.
Senior Ryan Scheffler, the starting center back last season, also went down early and missed a few weeks of the campaign, along with several others that were in and out of the lineup in the first month of the campaign. Scheffler is the anchor of the backfield when healthy.
There’s several quality holdovers from last year’s state runner-up team. Junior Dugan Black (M/F), senior Brian Goushaw (F) and sophomore Aidan Flanders (D/M) also started games last season and have been key this year. Sophomore Adam Flanders (M/F) is healthy after missing a ton of time last season and leads the team with 12 goals in a balanced offensive attack. Senior Kody Obenruf (OB) is also a returning starter and a steady player in the backfield.
Senior Kaizer Westgate (M), who was injured most of last season), and fellow seniors Owen VanDrie (D), Reid Wyngarden (D) and Sam Coyle (D) have also seen increased roles this season after coming off the bench last year. Juniors Noah Christian (F), Luke Carroll (D), Maximus Renton (M) and Drew Alexander (OB) have also enjoyed increased playing time. Several other first-year players have fought for playing time on another deep roster.
Since the loss on Aug. 28 to East Kentwood, Rockford has really been on a roll. Now ranked ninth entering the postseason, they are on a 12-0-1 streak entering this week’s regional. In that stretch the Rams have outscored the opposition 48-4 with 10 shutouts. Over 20 games this season, Rockford holds a 58-13 scoring edge with 12 shutouts.
In contrast, over the first two weeks of the season Rockford was 3-3-1, only outscored the opposition 10-9 with two shutouts The Rams were shut out twice in that opening stretch to the aforementioned Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central and Cincinnati Moeller.
“I’ll be honest, we have some kids this year that have played better this year than we thought they would. It’s just a matter of maturing as players, being healthy, making the right decisions, playing hard – and we’ve seen that with this year’s roster. Some kids have really stepped up.”
Rockford (15-3-2) will face fellow state-ranked and high-powered Traverse City West (20-1-1) in Tuesday’s regional semifinals at Forest Hills Northern.
“Traverse City West is another good team – if we make another run they’ll all be good teams,” said Boelman. “There’s no one left in the tournament that isn’t a good team. We had our work cut out for us in the district and that will be the case if we are to (survive) the regional. In the other half of our region there’s Grand Haven and they are in our league. They play Portage Central and they are always good.”