Gielczyk: Manistee Eyes Future Improvement with Experienced Roster
Manistee’s boys soccer team hasn’t won a district championship since 2008, and has endured some lean years in terms of season records in the interim as well.
This year was no different. But, then, that was to be expected after the Chippewas lost a good chunk of their goal scoring capabilities with the graduation of standout Anselmo Sarabia and a young team.
Sarabia is now competing for a starting position in college, and the Chippewas also lost several support players.
With five junior varsity players graduating to the varsity, the Chippewas knew it would be a season of transition and that certainly showed right from the get-go.
So, through most of preseason camp and on into the early part of the season, Manistee was searching for its identity.
“We’ve always had strong players in the past, individual players who could control such aspects of the field, where this year we had to find out who we are as 11 guys,” head coach Brandon Prince said.
“It took a little bit. Once we made some changes in some of our shape, and our sequences, you could see the guys kind of grasp their roles. I hate to put it this way, but it’s the truth, it was good to see (senior) Will Elbers sort of step out of the shadows of some past players and become his own player.”
Elbers, who had largely played in Sarabia’s shadow the previous two seasons, emerged as the Chippewas’ leading attacker with 25 goals and 10 assists on the season.
He was named to the First Team Lakes 8 Activities Conference. Although he’ll be gone next year along with fellow seniors Nick Applegarth and AJ Anderson, the Chippewas will have eight juniors returning as seniors with plenty of experience.
Jack Holtgren is one of the key veterans coming back. He finished the season with 10 goals and 15 assists after finally settling in at a forward spot, and will be counted on to step into Elbers’ role up top.
“Guys definitely found their identity,” Prince added. “But, it was definitely a group effort, though, to find out who we were.”
Another key member of the team expected to return is goalie Drew Schlaff, who started in net last year as a sophomore.
“Drew makes some first class saves,” said Prince. “He makes some very, very difficult saves, and he does it consistently. His distribution is great. I think he’s still youthful in some of the other aspects of the position, but he just progresses year by year.
“I told him at the end of this season that now we need to look at the little things. Let’s get to the point where you’re not making those huge save, you’re in the right position, you’re anticipating a little better. When he gets through that this off-season and early into next season, I honestly believe he’s one of the better (goalies) in the area, absolutely.”
His brother, Grant (also a junior and a team captain this year) will be entering his fourth year on the varsity and has what Prince says is a “high motor” for the game but needs a little more confidence in his control of the midfield.
Ben Schlaff stepped in to play at center back as a freshman because of injuries and other factors and he started every minute of every game the reset of the way.
“You could see him make strides every game,” Prince added. “For him to come back as a sophomore with 22 games of experience, I think he’ll come back as a strong player.
“Dylan Johnson (a junior) stepped into a new position and did a great job at the other center back spot. But, we knew those learning curves were going to happen for him early in the season and progress to better things. I think we saw that.
“We have a couple of JV guys that have a lot of potential to step in and make an impact early. Just overall, I think this large group of juniors found a good identity and hopefully they carry that torch and be successful with it.”
Despite an 0-2 start Manistee head coach Brandon Prince was encouraged by the closeness of the scores in a 2-0 loss to Big Rapids and 4-0 to Newaygo, although the offense failed to click.
Next came a meeting with Division 1 Traverse City Central and Prince had even more reason to feel positive about the results as the Chippewas gave the Trojans all they wanted in a 2-1 loss.
Manistee continued to be competitive in every match the rest of the way, but unfortunately the offense was lacking, as it would be, other than a few exceptions, throughout the season.
As a result, wins were few and far between.
Still, there were flashes of Manistee’s potential. The Chippewas had a 1-0 lead on Muskegon Western Michigan Christian with a chance to tie it, and win the match, at the end before falling, 2-1 at home on Sept. 5.
“I think those are good building for the young guys, absolutely,” said Prince. “Then you could see once they started to gain a little bit of a knowledge of the system, and how to play it 11 guys on the field, the results started to change a little bit.”
The Chippewas went 4-3 down the stretch, including a 7-0 MHSAA district tournament quarterfinal win over Hart before dropping a 3-1 match to Shelby in the semifinals to finish 6-13-2.
“When we lost that final game to Shelby, we didn’t go into the locker room talking about woulda, shoulda and coulda for that game we just played,” Prince said. “We talked about the positive in the season.
“We talked about the things we grew from, the lessons we learned and things to look forward to while you say goodbye to a great group of seniors that just gave the program a lot of good times, and good play.
“It’s the next guys who have to carry that momentum from this season and make it stronger for next season.”
Only two games got away from the Chippewas this season, that one to WMC, a top tier team, and a 7-0 loss to Ludington which won its third straight district championship.
Manistee competed with everyone else. Prince is hoping the Chippewas can flip the majority of those results next season with a large group of returning players.
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. Gielczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas.