Chris Lemay’s Soccer in the Sand hosts tournaments all over the country, but he’s never seen a turnout like he saw in Grand Haven this weekend.
A total of 231 teams participated in the Soccer in the Sand event at Grand Haven State Park — up from 162 teams last year.
“We’re trying to do the numbers, but with 2,500 participants, when you start talking about moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends, we’re certain we were over 10,000 people each day,” said Lemay, who lives in the San Diego area but grew up vacationing in Spring Lake. “That’s a total crowd of over 20,000.
“We do 12 tournaments annually around the country, and this was the biggest one we’ve ever done. San Diego is massive, Oregon is big, Cleveland, but this is the biggest we’ve ever done.”
Local businesses are taking notice.
“I had a couple business owners from Grand Haven call me and thank me,” Lemay said. “They said they did as much in retail sales as they do on Coast Guard Saturday, so this is great for the local economy.”
Lemay was also thrilled to be contacted by state park officials, who asked if he could leave a set of goals at the park permanently. Lemay was happy to oblige.
“They said, ‘Hey, what do you think bout leaving a set of goals we could have all year?’ so we literally fabricated World Cup soccer goals,” Lemay said. “Prior to that, there were only six sets of goals like this in the world, and they were all in France.
“We had a local welder make the exact same goal, we had a paint company do them in yellow, so we paid a good amount of money for those goals. That’s our contribution to the state park.”
Lemay said there aren’t many beaches in the United States with permanent soccer goals of any type.
“There are a couple places in California, a couple other places throughout the world, so now Grand Haven, Michigan, is among them,” he said. “It’s becoming a beach soccer town.
“My parents live in Spring Lake, and I grew up vacationing in Grand Haven and Spring Lake, so to be able to come, essentially, home, to go to the areas, the restaurants I grew up on is unbelievable.”
Also unbelievable is the level of talent that shows up in Grand Haven each summer.
Lemay plays with a the Great Lakes Beach Soccer team, made up of mostly local players — Phil VanRees, Mike Vollmer, Avery Steinlage, Zac McCabe, Ryan Severance, Rob Saurbaugh, A.J. Dufendach, Nick Capisciolto, Matt Schmidt and Kevin Hardy.
That squad reached the finals of the Men’s Open division, losing to a team made up mainly of current players at Calvin and Aquinas colleges.
Another team in the Men’s Open field was the defending national champions out of Ohio. That team failed to advance out of pool play.
“That goes to show you what the level of soccer was,” Lemay said.
Winning the top women’s division was the women’s version of Great Lakes Beach Soccer. That squad includes former Spring Lake Lakers Annie Steinlage, Lauren Gagnon and Rachel Kilbry, along with former WMC Warrior Annie VanRees.
Winning the top division qualifies the Great Lakes Beach Soccer team for a spot in the national championships later this year in Florida.
“That team is pretty much composed of kids who are playing at top Division 1 colleges,” Lemay said. “I have a team I put together out of Southern California that won the national championship last year and, watching this team play, my girls will have their hands full.”
Results from other divisions can be found online at soccerinthesand.com.
Phil VanRees, who starred at Western Michigan Christian High School and now coaches soccer at Spring Lake, said playing soccer in the sand brings an entirely new dimension to a game he’s played most of his life.
“Beach soccer is completely different than playing on a traditional surface,” he said. “A lot of the game is aerial due to the difficulty of passing or shooting in the sand. The allure is that you’re at the beach and you’re playing soccer, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”