BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
WARREN, Mich. – Thaier Mukhtar had but one open question for his Warren De La Salle players Saturday afternoon.
“Who needs seniors?,” asked Mukhtar, one of the winningest high school soccer coaches in Michigan history.
Muhktar, who has coached more than 40 years at De La Salle and Fraser, saw his young team capture a Division 2 regional title Saturday with a 2-1 win over Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingwood. De La Salle has won its fair share of championships over the past several decades, but this season’s journey is a little bit unique.
De La Salle was ranked in the preseason but quickly fell out of the D-2 top 15 and off the radar of most teams. The Pilots have no seniors on this year’s roster. Zero. Zilch. But here De La Salle stands as one of the four remaining schools left in the field of some 120 teams in Division 2. The Pilots remain along three schools ranked the whole season – Mason, Holland Christian and Grand Rapids Christian. And all three of those programs have captured state titles within the last decade.
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“This is the first time in my coaching career that I don’t have any seniors,” reminded Muhktar. “I never thought about not having any seniors. Some of the best teams I’ve coached over the years had lots of seniors. That’s why I asked them the question on the bus ride home Saturday. They were all singing, smiling and having a good time and then they were laughing after I asked them that question.”
While most teams come up with catchy slogans and catch phrases to put onto the backs of T-shirts each season – and along with heavy expectations – the Pilots have been busy in the background, maturing, gelling, and turning heads as of yet. And without any leadership from any 12th-graders.
De La Salle graduated 15 players from last year’s team that captured a Division 2 district, plus had two current seniors opt to not return this season for various reasons. With less than 10 total returning players on their roster, the Pilots’ coaching staff had to look to several younger players to step up into roles normally expected of seniors and upperclassmen.
De La Salle is no secret to championship-style soccer. The program has boasted some great teams in its storied past. Beyond the countless number of CHSL Central Division and CHSL A-B titles, the Pilots have won 34 district titles over the years (32 with Muhktar as the head coach). De La Salle has won 12 regional titles and is now in the Final four for the 12th time – although each of the other deep runs happened in either Class A or Division 1 and with rosters littered with seniors and juniors.
The Pilots finished as the state runner-up back in 1994 and captured state titles five times – 1990, 1992, 1993, 2000 and 2005.
“I’ve coach 41, maybe 42 years and I’ve never had such a young team,” noted Muhktar. “We struggled early in the season. We were competitive but lost some close games against some good teams.”
De La Salle started the year 6-9-0 and following a 4-2 loss to Riverview, a Final Four team last season, began to turn a corner. At that point the Pilots had scored 37 goals and conceded 37 goals but were somewhat inconsistent. Since that day, the Pilots have become a different side, playing with confidence and almost playing like upperclassmen.
“That’s what I told them,” offered Muhktar. “I said to the freshmen they are now sophomores and to the sophomores they are now juniors and to the juniors they are now playing like seniors.”
De La Salle plays 12th-ranked Mason – another program that is no stranger to postseason success with 10 appearances in the Final Four – in this year’s state semifinals. The two will tangle at 6 p.m. Wednesday at North Farmington High School. The Pilots are sailing on a seven-game win streak where they hold a 24-2 scoring edge and five shutouts.
Junior Josh Ross (M) has 15 goals and five assists, junior Jason Jurczyk (D/M) has six goals and 11 assists, and freshman Andrew Corder leads the team with 15 goals and seven assists as one of the state’s better freshmen prospects. Junior Danile Makara (D), freshman goalkeeper Dominic Bardarotta, freshman James Spicuzzi (M), sophomore Maxwell Wyszczewski (D) and sophomore Nikola Zacharko (F), who has five goals and four assists, junior Harrison Pertot (OB), and junior Jack Janusch (OB) have also been key players for the young Pilots, who have more than earned their wings. Sophomore Ashton Baan (M) and Vianno Gorgis (M) have also been steady contributors. Many of these players also have a strong club soccer pedigree – and have bright soccer careers ahead of them.
For the season, De La Salle has now outscored its opposition 61-39 with seven clean sheets and have been shut out four times – although many of those misfortunes were teaching moments earlier in the campaign and this unit has played well enough to make an unexpected run with no seniors. The Pilots finished sixth of seven teams in the CHSL Central Division which expanded to seven teams this year with the addition of three Toledo, Ohio, high schools.
“We are battle-tested,” offered Mukhtar, who recently passed East Lansing’s Nick Archer on the state’s all-time wins list. “We took our lumps early in the season and lost some games. But we are playing much better soccer. When we beat Oxford when they were the No. 2 team in the state in Division 1 right before the state tournament, I think the guys really started listening to the coaches. I think they really started to believe in themselves.”
For Muhktar – the coach was at De La Salle 1983-2011; then at Fraser from 2012-2017 where he coached one Final Four team; and then back to De La Salle from 2018 to present – some of his teams were expected to make deep runs to the Final Four. His 1990 squad won 24 straight after losing its season-opener and was nationally-ranked that year. Many of his teams in the 1990s were packed with future college players.
This year’s team is young – and perhaps the youngest team still alive in any of the four MHSAA divisions.
“I’m proud of these guys. I don’t think very many people outside of our school thought we’d be here,” added Muhktar. “But here we are in the Final Four.”
Spread your wings, young Pilots. The sky’s the limit.
WARREN DE LA SALLE FINAL FOUR RUNS
1984: Lost to Livonia Stevenson 2-0 in Class A state semifinals
1987: Lost to Grand Blanc 3-2 in Class A state semifinals
1990: Defeated Livonia Churchill 2-0 in the Class A state finals
1992: Plymouth Salem 2-1 in overtime in the Class A state finals
1993: Defeated Livonia Stevenson 2-1 in overtime in the Class A state finals
1994: Lost to Plymouth Canton 1-0 in overtime in the Class A state finals
1997: Lost to Troy Athens 2-1 in a shootout in Division 1 state semifinals
2000: Tied Birmingham Brother Rice 1-1 in the Division 1 state finals (no shootout was contested; co-champions crowned)
2005: Defeated Birmingham Brother Rice 1-0 in Division 1 state finals
2011: Lost to Plymouth Canton 1-0 in Division 1 state semifinals
2018: Lost to Ann Arbor Skyline 2-1 in overtime in the Division 1 state semifinals
2023: To be determined; plays Mason Wednesday night in the Division 2 state semifinals