BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
HARTFORD, Mich. — Just off to the north of I-94 in southwestern Michigan, not too much extravagant happens in the small town of Hartford.
Perhaps an occasional train passes by on the CXS mainline or West Michigan Railroad shortline. Small factories or warehouses are bustling with employees, and farmers and wineries in the neighboring countryside are busy at various times of year. But as for bigtime events in town, or diner, bar or coffeehouse talk, not too much occurs within the city limits. There are only around 2,500 residents inside the rural Van Buren County town borders.
The Hartford High School boys soccer team is trying to change that.
The Huskies, which first started its soccer program in 2009, has quietly developed into a Division 4 state powerhouse. The only things that are missing for Hartford are regional championships, trips to the Final Four and a state title banner on the gymnasium wall.
“I think this program has come a long ways since we first started the program (14) years ago,” said head coach Nick Blackmer, who grew up playing soccer and basketball in Cadillac, Mich. “We’ve won a few league and district titles and we’re proud of that. But we haven’t been able to get over the (hump) and win a regional title. There was a time where we kept facing (Kalamazoo) Hackett (Catholic Prep) in the regionals and couldn’t get through. I think they knocked us out in the regional finals twice (2015 and 2017).”
Hartford has captured eight district titles in Division 4 since its inception in 2009. The Huskies also own eight league championships and routinely finish in the top half of the Southwest 10 Conference every year.
Over the last eight seasons (2015-2022), Hartford has put up some gaudy numbers in that period. The program has averaged 18 wins and 10 shutouts, allowed 20.4 goals a season and has scored an impressive 98.8 goals a year. Those averages include the 2020 Covid-shortened season where the team only played 16 total games including two state tournament contests.
The 2021 program recorded 15 clean sheets, the 2015 squad scored 127 goals while yielding only 13 goals. The 2015 team also finished 22-2-0, another mark for the Huskies in terms of most wins.
“That 2015 team was very good, especially offensively. We were good last year, and we won 19 games in 2018 and ’19,” recalled Blackmer, who is also the school’s athletics director. He helped start the Huskies program just 14 short years ago and is the only head caoch the program has ever had since its inception.
“I think this year’s team could be our best talent-wise,” beamed Blackmer. “I think player-for-player the potential is there. We really got off to a roll. We’re hoping to be able to win another district or more.”
Hartford was ranked in the top three in the Division 4 top-15 coaches rankings all season. The Huskies started 14-0-0 and were ranked No. 1 for five weeks. Despite a pair of late regular-season losses to defending D-4 state champion and No. 10 Wyoming Potter’s House Christian (3-2) and a setback (1-0) to Holland Christian, ranked sixth in Division 3, the team is rolling along in convincing fashion.
Currently, Hartford stands 19-2-0 overall, including 17-2-0 in the regular season. The Huskies finished 8-0-0 to capture another Southwest 10 Conference championship -- its sixth straight and seventh in the last eight seasons.
Hartford outscored the opposition in the regular season 96-22 with eight shutouts this season and behind two district wins has now overpowered the opposition 107-25 with eight shutouts. In the district finals, the Huskies avenged a 2021 tournament loss to Holland Black River Academy (3-1). Black River upset then-top-ranked Hartford 3-2 in last year’s regional finals (Elite Eight), again blocking the route to the elusive Final Four.
The Huskies are now 0-4 in regional finals games. Hartford also lost in the Division 4 regional finals in 2012, 2015 and 2017. The Huskies have been a staple in the D-4 top 15 state rankings in the last decade. The program has reached at least the district finals 11 times in 14 seasons but have yet to play during the final week of the season.
As for players, Hartford has several talented athletes roaming the pitch. Senior forward Alan Gonzales (All-State First Team last year) and junior forward Caden Smith (All-State Second Team) both returned this year and have become big-time finishers. Senior attacking midfielder Kevin Parra (All-State Honorable Mention last year) and freshman midfielder Cameron Kuehnle have been key cogs in the offensive machine.
Sophomore goalkeeper Brodie Johnson has emerged as a stable presence between the pipes in his first season as a starter, while senior Jose Rios and juniors Erick Morales and Dylan Kuehnle have been steady on the backline.
While some of the larger schools from southwestern Michigan have multiple club players and college recruits coming from the likes of the Kalamazoo Kingdom or Midwest United club teams, Hartford does not.
“We don’t get a bunch of club players every year,” noted Blackmer. “Around 53 percent of our population is Hispanic and a lot of those kids grow up playing soccer. They may not play for a large club, but they often play in men’s leagues in the summer and a lot of them are very skilled. We also have kids that are hard workers, good athletes and are coachable. I think that has led to our success over the years. We look at some of those bigger schools out here like a Portage Central, Portage Northern, (Richland) Gull Lake and even St. Joseph and those schools all have a lot of club players. Hartford and a lot of the other small schools out here might not have that type of (club experience and pedigree).”
Hartford will face another state powerhouse Wednesday in the D-4 regional semifinals. Fifth-ranked Grandville Calvin Christian (15-3-3) awaits the Huskies at 6 p.m. at Holland Christian. Seventh-ranked and unbeaten Marcellus Howardsville Christian will face off with unranked but multi-state championship winner Muskegon Western Michigan Christian in the second regional semifinal. Those are the teams standing in Hartford’s way to a Final Four berth.
“We’re hoping to finally win a regional,” beamed Blackmer. “It won’t be easy. We know that. We learned last season that anyone can beat you, especially if you don’t play your best game. But we have a lot of e(varsity and tournament) experience this year. The boys have that as one of their goals. Of course winning the league and district are always there. We’ve built a culture here and we always expect to contend for those (championships). We hope to take the next step (this year).”
HARTFORD CHAMPIONSHIPS / TOURNAMENT RUNS:
LEAGUE TITLES – 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015 (incomplete list)
DISTRICT TITLES – 2022, 2021, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015, 2012, 2011
REGIONAL TITLES – None
FINAL FOUR – None
LOST IN REGIONAL SEMIFINALS – 2019, 2018, 2011
LOST IN REGIONAL FINALS – 2021, 2017, 2015, 2012,
2022 – League and district champions; regional play pending
An asterisk * denotes current record, which will change during the remaining of the state tournament
2022: 19-2-0*, 8-0-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champions; currently playing in regionals; eight shutouts; outscored opposition 107-25
2021: 21-2-1, 7-0-1 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champions; regional finalists; 15 shutouts; outscored opposition 120-17
2020: 13-3-0, 6-0-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district finalists; five shutouts; outscored opposition 58-18
2019: 19-4-0, 9-1-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champs; regional semifinalists; 11 shutouts; outscored opposition 111-29
2018: 19-4-0, 9-1-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champs; regional semifinalists; 10 shutouts; outscored opposition 89-22
2017: 17-5-2, 9-2-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champs; regional finalists; 13 shutouts; outscored opposition 91-23
2016: 14-4-1, 10-3-1 Southwest 10 Conference (second); district finalists; six shutouts; outscored opposition 87-26
2015: 22-2-0, 11-0-0 Southwest 10 Conference (first); district champs; regional finalists; 12 shutouts; outscored opposition 127-13
2014: 11-2-3, district finalists
2013: 15-2-0, district semifinalists
2012: District champions; regional finalists
2011: District champions; regional semifinalists
2010: District semifinalists
2009: Not available