The game was originally scheduled to be played on Thursday, but was moved back to Friday after a Unity Christian player’s sister committed suicide, according to Crusaders’ coach Randy Heethuis.
“It’s been a rough 24 hours,” said Heethuis, whose team, ranked No. 3 in the state, advances to Wednesday’s state semifinals against Dexter. “The effort spoke for itself. These kids went out and laid their hearts on the line. I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys.”
Unity Christian jumped on Spring Lake from the get-go, displaying a style of play that was quicker and more physical than the Lakers were used to seeing.
“They moved the ball well and played with a lot of pace, more than we’ve seen this year,” said Lakers’ senior Ben Keller. “That first 10 minutes, they really got onto us.”
The Lakers eventually settled down and began to play their style of soccer, with crisp passes through the midfield and long balls sent to forwards Riley Kammeraad and K.J. Sanchez.
The Lakers were rewarded for their efforts with a free kick from 35 yards out 20 minutes into the game. Senior Adam Clauss served a perfect ball in to classmate Austin Gabris, who streaked in and drilled a header past Unity Christian goalie Nick Woldyk for a 1-0 lead.
That advantage lasted for about 10 minutes, when at the 9:09 mark of the first half, Unity took advantage of a lapse on defense by the Lakers to knot the score at 1-1. Spring Lake failed to clear the ball, setting up a hard shot that bounced off goalie Joe Czajka. Unity’s Jake VandeKieft was there to bang home the rebound.
In the second half, the teams traded chances until Unity was able to score the game-winner with 18:05 remaining. Again, Spring Lake couldn’t clear the ball, and it eventually ended up on the foot of Stephan Hooker, who chipped a shot over Czajka for a 2-1 lead.
Spring Lake, which entered the game without a loss on its record and ranked No. 1 in the state, poured it on over the final several minutes of the game. Their comeback effort as made more difficult due to the fact that they lost one dangerous attacker, Kaleb Winter, to an injury in the first half. Another, leading scorer Riley Kammeraad, was shown a yellow card with 8 minutes remaining and was forced to watch the end of the game from the sidelines, his head buried in his hands.
Still, the Lakers came within inches of scoring the equalizer in the final seconds.
Clauss hit a long shot from about 50 yards out that bounced in Unity’s penalty box. The ball had plenty of topspin, sending it over the head of Woldyk and glancing off the crossbar. Time expired a moment later, sending an emotional Unity team into a wild celebration with its fans who poured out onto the field.
“This was a hard-fought game that could have gone either way,” said Lakers’ coach Jeremy Thelen, whose team ends its season at 21-1-1. “They went hard to the ball. That’s what you know Unity’s going to do. We’re going to fight to the end, never give up. We just kept fighting.”
Unlike last year’s Lakers’ team which reached the state finals with a huge contingency of juniors, this year’s squad is senior-oriented. The Lakers will graduate 11 players off this squad, including eight starters. Several of those seniors are third or fourth year varsity players.
“I’m appreciative of all the seniors and everything they’ve given us this year,” Thelen said. “This is a hard way to go out.”
“I love everyone on this team,” added Keller. “They’ve all been great this whole run. After this, there’s really nothing to say except to give a couple hugs.”