Gielczyk: Manistee Overcomes Adversity in 2016

It was a tough debut season in the Lakes 8 Activities Conference for the Manistee boys soccer team.

The Chippewas went 0-7 in the league, precipitating their first losing season at 7-9 after registering winning records the previous two years.

But those numbers didn’t tell the whole story of Manistee’s season. The Chippewas actually made great strides as a program despite what the record might seemingly indicate.

Manistee came into the season inexperienced with a number of players who were starting that did not have a lot of playing time a year ago and it took some time for them to grow comfortable in their new roles.

In the past Manistee often struggled to be competitive in its early games, frequently getting behind by a lot and never being able to recover.

Some games ended early with the 8-goal mercy lead being enforced. The Chippewas would eventually right the ship, gaining more offensive firepower and defensive strength with the addition of foreign exchange students who came aboard after school started. 

That scenario changed dramatically this year. Manistee was never out of any game, starting from day one. A 4-0 loss to arch rival, and perennially strong Ludington in the season’s fourth week indicated that this was a different Manistee team than had been seen in the past.

"It kind of showed that we’re improving in our program, especially in our youth getting the experience they need," Chippewas head coach Brandon Prince said. "We’re competing with teams right off the bat more. That was a good thing to see.

"We had some challenges with some sickness on the team which kind of hampered us in some of the bigger games we played in … Ludington the second time,  (Muskegon) West Michigan Christian the second time we had a couple guys out, including starters.

"But we still ended with reasonable scores. We don’t like to see 5-0 against Ludington at all, but we had five guys out that game due to sickness. Then to go to West Michigan Christian soon after that and we lose 3-0 with three of our starters sick and not able to play.

"Those are positive things to see for the rest of the guys on the team, stepping up and filling roles, and doing nicely to compete against these top quality teams."

Prince recognized the challenge Manistee faced going into the conference schedule, given that the majority of the league teams were and have been well established boys’ soccer programs.

But he felt the Chippewas possessed the ability to play them all on an equal footing, and that’s just how the season panned out.

He was especially proud of the second game against Muskegon Catholic Central in which the Chippewas had the lead for a good share of the game before the Crusaders rallied to tie it and force overtime.

It was eventually settled in two shootouts. But it spoke volumes about how far the Chippewas had come since the beginning of the season, with the Crusaders playing for a state championship just a couple weeks later.

The Chippewas played two close games with Muskegon Orchard View, which would go on to win its district title and compete in the regionals. Manistee lost only 3-0 in the second meeting with West Michigan Christian after losing, 7-1 in the first game.

All of which were positive signs, Prince felt, even if the Chippewas didn’t win a league game.

"I think our kids really stepped up to the challenge," Prince said. "We didn’t win any games in the conference, but I think we came away with a lot of experience on what it takes to be in a conference like that and compete.

"We’ve talked in the past about having that non-conference schedule that you kind of fluctuate through quality, and it’s hard. This year being unfamiliar territory (and) to go in and we weren’t close to being mercied."

Manistee gathered respect from the conference, too, despite its 0-7 record in the league.

Prince was voted Coach of the Year, and two Chippewas won spots on the All-Conference team, junior goalkeeper Shane Harrigan and sophomore forward Luis Off.

Harrigan was voted the Chippewas’ Most Valuable Player and Off the Offensive Player of the Year. Both received All-District, All-Region and All-State honors. Off moved to a wing this year and his scoring fell off some as a result, but he still scored seven goals and led the team in assists.

Sophomore forward Adbeil Nunez got more minutes under his belt, especially against top quality teams, and is still feeling out where he stands ability wise. Prince anticipates him to be a good goal scorer next year.

The Chippewas lost in the district finals to Benzie Central, but came away feeling that they had every reason to believe they had the talent and skill set to move on. But they didn’t execute like they needed to that day while the Huskies did, and paid the price for it.

While the Chippewas lose some key players, Prince is pleased with the future of the program with what they have coming up and players who didn’t play as much this season returning to take much bigger roles on the team.

Manistee has a solid core returning next year, including sophomore forward Anselmo Sarabia, a two-time All-District selection and the team’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2015. He fell off some this year, but still scored seven goals and led the team in assists.

Among the freshmen who showed great potential was Will Elbers, and then there are some eighth graders who’ll be coming up as a freshmen Prince anticipates will move into the lineup much quicker than usual.

The defense will return junior Ben Miller. This was expected to be a development year for him, but he played extended minutes and did a tremendous job. Now he just needs to fine tune his game.

Garrett Brown, who was named All-District as well as the team’s Defensive Player of the Year, will return as a senior. Also expected to be back on defense is sophomore left back Ben Doolittle, and Noah Owens who started at right back but suffered an early season injury that ended his season. He’s expected to take over at left back.

"It’s a solid place to build from, especially with Shane behind them," Prince says. "The midfield will be the spot where we have to find what we need. Elmo (Sarabia) and Will return on the wings, but finding the guy in the middle to possess a game is where we have to look and see what we have coming forward. We might have to make some adjustments."

Prince didn’t look at this as a losing season, but rather a progressive season. Manistee grew in stature as a program.

There’s every reason to expect that to continue.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

Categories: Boys Soccer