BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. – Sometimes all an engine needs are a flush of new fluids to make it hum again.
That’s kind of what Harbor Springs has done on the soccer pitch the last couple of years.
With a heavy influx of talented soccer players and multi-sport athletes the past couple of years, the Rams have done some re-tooling and with the youth movement have breathed new life into the heart of its engine. Harbor Beach is cruising around with some high-level performances this season.
The Rams captured their first Division 4 district crown in “several years” last week, according to third-year head coach Jeff Suffolk, and cracked the D-4 Top 15 rankings back in September. Simply put, Harbor Springs is having its best season in a long time.
The Rams (15-4-3 overall) finished second to powerhouse Elk Rapids in the Lake Michigan Conference (6-1-3 league record) and will face unranked Roscommon at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the regional semifinals at Clare High School. To put that in perspective, Harbor Springs has lost in the pre-district or district semifinals the past several years and were a combined 14-20-2 the last two years.
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Things have changed since the influx of talent in 2022 and 2023.
“We have some really good younger players that have made a big difference,” noted Suffolk, who also coaches in the club system with Vardar North and has been part of the Michigan soccer community playing for South Lyon High School more than 25 years ago. “We were struggling when I first took over, but the younger guys have stepped in and done a nice job and a couple of our upperclassmen have done a nice job being leaders.”
In Suffolk’s first season at the helm in 2021, the program was 4-10-2 overall and 3-5-2 in the LMC. The Rams were only 7-7-2 in 2020, 5-9-1 in 2019 and 4-15-1 in 2018 – and the program did not finish any higher than fourth place in the LMC during that span.
This season Harbor Springs has elevated to another level to reach the Sweet 16 of the Division 4 state tournament. The program has pitched four straight shutouts with an 18-0 scoring edge and are on a six-game win streak with a 27-2 edge on the scoreboard.
In the last eight games, the Rams have outscored the opposition 31-5 and posted a 7-0-1 record in that stretch. The last loss was to Division 2 Marquette (2-0 in the Weber Invitational finals, and Marquette captured a Division 2 district title on Saturday. Harbor Springs claimed its district crown with wins over Mackinac Island (8-0) and Charlevoix (3-0) and will take its hot streak into the match against Roscommon (11-6-3) having only conceded just nine goals combined in September and October.
The Rams yielded seven goals to Division 3 state-ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (7-0 loss) and five goals to Division 2 power Warren DeLaSalle (5-1 loss) back in some pre-season tournament back in August, as Suffolk loaded up some games against some much bigger schools. The Rams only have 246 students in grades 9-12 and is a tiny town cross the bay to the north of Petoskey.
That being said, Harbor Springs does have some talented players. Freshman Henry Juneau spent his eighth-grade year traveling downstate to play for Vardar MLS Next Academy and is one of the better ninth-graders in the state this fall. He leads the Rams with 37 goals and 22 assists for a team that has outscored its 22 opponents an eye-catching 78-22 with 13 clean sheets.
Several other players on the roster have earned All-LMC and All-District honors both in 2022 and 2023 and the Rams are solid on all sides of the pitch for a small school located in a remote area of the northern Lower Peninsula.
Sophomore Grayson Rife is as athletic as they come and has stepped up between the pipes in his first season as a starter.
“He’s another special kid. He has improved so much since last year and a big reason why we have played well on the defensive end,” said Suffolk of Rife. “He’s only going to get better. I’ve compared him to some hockey goalies. I’m sure he doesn’t know who some of them are, but he’s a tough kid and plays with no fear.”
Junior Charlie Baker (M/OB)and sophomore Braeden Flynn (CB) have also shined as non-seniors.
The team welcomed back some heart-working, hard hat-wearing seniors that have aided the cause. Seniors Niko Reskevics (M), Sam Miller (F), Nash Van Sloten (D), Everett Shepherd (F) and Jackson Bubs Deegan (D) all earned honors last season. Junior Joe Warren (D) and sophomores Ryan Novak (M) and Ben McShannock (M) have also emerged as key players. Many of these players earned first-team All-League or All-District or honorable mention on those lists.
With a win Tuesday, Harbor Springs will advance to the Elite Eight in D-4, and with several more club players who are in the eighth grade right now set to arrive next season, the Rams are seeking additional success in the near future.
“We returned a lot of kids this season and having Henry in there and some of the sophomores playing well, we have definitely improved a ton over the last couple of years,” noted Suffolk. “We have a long ways to go, but I’m proud of this group for kind of turning things around. And the future look bright because we’ll return a lot of boys next year and have some pretty good ones coming up.