“It’s definitely been a change of pace,” said Lakers’ senior Kelsey Fortier, who was a junior on last year’s squad that was ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the season. That team went undefeated throughout the regular season but saw its season come to a stunning end at the hands of rival Fruitport in the first round of the Division 2 state tournament.
The 2010 Lakers were led into battle by a heralded senior class that included Michigan State University-bound Annie Steinlage and Morgan Gagnon, who went to Valparaiso.
Without that star power, the Lakers entered the 2011 season with more questions than answers.
“We definitely had to figure out how the puzzle fit together,” Fortier said. “We’ve really come together as a team. We’ve had to have different players step up at different positions. It was frustrating at first, but our weaknesses turned into our strengths.
“It makes us really happy because we’ve put in the hard work.”
Fortier is a tireless outside midfielder who simply loves the game of soccer. She’s joined by fellow seniors Katie Albright, Sarah Park, Katie Smith and Anika Sokolow. Jenny Kalejs, one of the Lakers’ more dangerous forwards returning from a year ago, missed the season with a knee injury.
That group of seniors has guided the Lakers to a 10-5 record, including five straight wins, and a regular-season Lakes Eight Conference title.
Spring Lake coach Jeremy Thelen said he never doubted this year’s team could live up to the lofty expectations he set for it.
“I was pretty hard on them in the beginning, because I had high expectations and I wanted them to see it. Now our seniors, Fortier and Smith, are starting to push the younger girls.”
Even without the star power from a year ago, Thelen said his team has had to take other team’s best shots all season.
“I really think we still have a target on our chest,” he said. “The last couple years, we beat up on teams. They wanted the chance to get back at us. I think our conference thought the were going to get us.”
Spring Lake suffered several tough-luck losses early in the season, but never faltered in league play, going 7-0 against conference opponents. On Wednesday, Spring Lake scored a 3-0 win over Ludington in the second round of the conference tournament, setting up a rematch with rival Fruitport on Monday.
Thelen hasn’t been surprised by his team’s success the past few weeks, but he is very happy to see his current crop of seniors enjoy a successful season.
“It’s great to have this group of girls realize they can do it just as much as past teams have,” Thelen said.
The Lakers are eager for a second shot at the Trojans, and realize that the result of the May 10 meeting between the two teams is irrelevant.
“Last year, losing to them was so unexpected, so we don’t take anything for granted,” Fortier said.