Boys Soccer Top 50 Teams Preview: Defending Division 1 champion East Kentwood is the team to beat

Soccer   | Dan Stickradt

Boys Soccer Top 50 Teams Preview: Defending Division 1 champion East Kentwood is the team to beat


Kentwood – It takes years to build a powerhouse sports program.

East Kentwood has proven just that on the soccer pitch over the past 20 years or so.

The Falcons broke through with their first Division 1 district title in 1998. Little did anyone know that was the budding seed of a sprouting, powerhouse soccer program.

When coach John Conlon took the reins in 2000, he added to the Falcons’ short-lived success story, brick-by-brick, pass-by-pass, training session-by-training session and years of preparation.

“It wasn’t easy those first few years,” he said. “When I took over, we only had that one real tournament run (in 1998) to speak of. But we were working real hard to build a strong program. The assistant coaches and I worked hard to really grow a youth program in the Kentwood community and make sure our players were playing on some of the best clubs.

“The thing about our soccer program is that it is not easy to play here — there’s an extraordinary amount of commitment. Not every player out there can (do it).”

East Kentwood’s first lengthy tournament run ended that season in the regional semifinals to Brighton, 3-1. The Falcons would not return to regional play until 2004.

East Kentwood has more than made a name for itself in the sport since, becoming one of the state’s most dominant large-school programs.

The Falcons compete in one of the deeper districts and have won 10 districts in 19 seasons, claimed six regional titles with one more regional runner-up showing. The Falcons have reached six semifinals including five state titles.

They are the defending state champions defeating Troy Athens in the final in a shootout, 1-0.

The Falcons have boasted dozens of All-State players and college players, and even had a handful of players climb to the professional ranks, both in the U.S. and overseas. 

East Kentwood’s place among the state’s elite programs is cemented and should continue in 2017.

In a year of parity, where there are some 20-plus schools in Division 1 that have a legitimate shot at making a run to the semifinals and another dozen or so in Division 2 with those same aspirations, it’s difficult to predict which team will win it all in 2017. The race in Division 3 and 4 have a small handful of schools with legitimate chances of reaching the title match.

“We have another good group of players this year, guys that work hard,” noted Conlon, who said that he has lost a half-dozen or so standouts to the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy since that program went to a 10-month schedule in 2012.  

“And not just Academy players, but Big Ten-level players, players that would have really helped us. We still compete without some of those guys. A lot of the best programs in the state lose players to the Academy. It is what it is.”

East Kentwood, 18-3-5 last season, has earned the distinction of being one of the state’s elite programs. The Falcons have captured five state titles in the past decade, more than any other program during that span. 

Dating back to 1982 (when the MHSAA first sanctioned the sport), the Falcons are tied for second for most titles in the Class A/Division 1. Of the 29 programs that have reached this level, Livonia Stevenson ranks first with 11 appearances and a 6-5 finals record.

East Kentwood has won all five of its state-final matches.

East Kentwood won back-to-back titles (2007, 2008) and won its other titles in 2010, 2012 and 2016. Last season the Falcons dropped to as low as No. 19 in the rankings before beginning their rise to the top.

Additionally, Warren DeLaSalle is 5-1 in title games. Troy Athens is 4-2, Plymouth Canton is 3-1, Plymouth Salem 1-5, Birmingham Brother Rice is 2-3 and Rochester Adams is 1-2 in the finals matches — the only other group of schools to play in more than two Class A/D-1 state finals.

A total of 17 schools have won Class A/D-1 state titles. 

Detroit Country Day tops all classes/divisions with a 14-1 state-finals record, with those coming in D-2, Class B, Class C or Class C-D.

The Falcons’ rise to the top is anchored by a true sense of family. 

“I think our program is really a family,” Conlon said. “Last year when we won it, there must have been 30-to-40 former players that came up to me before or after the game. They all still follow us. It’s funny, but whenever we lose or tie a game, I get calls, texts and emails from former players who are truly angry when we do not win. They really care.”

This season is now three weeks into the schedule, mainly weekend tournaments and non-league matches, where coaches around the state have juggled their respective lineups attempting to create the proper lineup to ensure their best chance for a league championship and lengthy postseason runs.

Here’s an in-depth look at the boys soccer programs to watch, a list that will surely change on a daily basis. 


1. EAST KENTWOOD (18-3-5): Another strong start has the Falcons in discussion once again, led by senior G Harris Dzafic, the only returning Dream Team player and a Mr. Soccer candidate. There are six returning starters and 15 total players back. Seniors Adis Guric, Lal San Eng and Jaxlend Delaney lead the attack, along with junior Jackson Strabel. Seniors Daniel Dias, Paul Bernard and Daniel Ackhimien anchor the midfield, and senior Adrian Diaz is the top defenseman. The recent departure of junior D Samuel Esquivel to the Wolves Academy will hurt but the Falcons are still deep.


2. TROY ATHENS (19-5-2): After a run to the D-1 title game last year, during a season tabbed as a rebuilding year, Athens has picked up right where it left off. Behind an 8-0-0 start, the Red Hawks are soaring. Senior M Will Harrison had stepped up to provide scoring thus far, along with senior F Cole Valentine. Senior M Andrew Nord, junior M Sean McConnell and junior D Aiden Fawcett (helped with 14 shutouts last year) are returning starters. Senior M Yusuf Uzhunnan, senior D Chris Culp and senior D/F Rob McCormick will see expanded roles. Athens may lack star power, but is as deep and balanced as any and in position to win its first title since 1997. Senior Clark Joslin and sophomore Jason Kemp split time in goal.


3. GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS NORTHERN (16-4-4): An injury-plagued season still saw the Huskies overcome a fourth-place finish in the O-K Conference White Division but still made a run to the D-2 regional finals. Forest Hills Northern is slated for its biggest year yet. Could a first state title be in the making for the 2015 state runners-up? The talent is there, led by senior D Hayden Strobel. Junior F Nate Texer is legacy to a former Dream Team brother, senior M Isaac Nelson and African transplant Jordan Okito (F) give the Huskies four college recruits down the middle. Junior M Sawyer Rilett, junior F Luca Licari, junior M Zac Meyers and sophomore D Aidan O’Connor


4. GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS CENTRAL (13-7-1): After winning a D-1 state title in 2015, Forest Hills Central faded from the Top 20 spotlight midway through last season with a team of mostly newcomers. That will not be the case this season. The Rangers return a bevy of talent and take a quantum leap forward with the arrival of senior F and Mr. Soccer candidate Eric Connerty (Butler), who was All-State Second Team as a freshman in 2014 but spent the last two school years starring with the Wolves Academy. Senior G Jared Ireland is a two-time All-State player who can also play in the field and sophomore M/F Sam Postelwait is one the state’s best in his class. Senior G/M Max Martin (Oakland), senior F/G Ian Able, senior D Tristan Kerr, junior G/D Zach Norris, senior M MJ Fransisco, senior D Nolan Vandegrift and senior M Mitch Strawser help make up a loaded roster. The Rangers are four-deep at the goalkeeper position. 


5. NORTHVILLE (13-5-6): After winning the KLAA Central Division last season and reaching a district final before falling in double overtime to Brighton, the senior-laden Mustangs hope to escape the western suburban hot pocket and make a run towards the school’s first state title. Behind a 5-0-1 start, Northville has a multitude of quality players, led by the senior back line of Collin Neal, Jacob Temonti and Tyler Schneider. Senior midfielders Owen Marshall, Zack Westenberg and Omar Lahbiki, junior M Connor Feney, a transfer from New Jersey, and senior snipers Andrew Mitchell and Felipe McCarthy will all be key factors. Northville also is blessed with three quality goalkeepers in senior transfer Reggie Spencer, junior Winni Kanellopoulos and sophomore Robert Damron. 


6. ROCHESTER (15-4-5): Despite losing three starters to injuries and having several players leave for the Vardar Academy, Rochester still had its finest season since winning the D-1 state title back in 2002, making a run to the state semifinals. There’s plenty of returning talent, as seniors Grant Benedettini, Martin Ivezaj and Joel Fickel again will play on a stingy back line in front of senior G Luke Kastran, a three-sport athlete. Senior M George Zagrodski, senior M/F Tyler Sommith and junior M/F Grant Ellison also started games last season. Sophomore F Game Baylon emerged down the stretch and will add punch to the offense. Senior F Sid Osborn, senior M Marco Gomez, who spent the last three years playing with Vardar Academy, senior F/M Luciano Errecalde, who also spent last season with the Vardar Academy, and junior M/F John Agoubi will make this team that more dangerous. 


7. LIVONIA STEVENSON (9-5-5): Stevenson is off to a 7-0-0 start and figures to be a threat to make a long run if it escapes a difficult district. Senior D Justin Schultz is one of the state’s best. Senior F Lucas Rea led the Spartans in scoring last season and senior F/M Tanner Brose played with the Vardar Academy last year, and has made a huge impact. Stevenson has a deep and experienced senior class.


8. DETROIT CATHOLIC CENTRAL (12-3-4): Despite outplaying Novi in its pre-district match last season, C.C. fell short in a shootout and Novi eventually advance to the semifinals. The Shamrocks started this season 5-0-2 despite playing a difficult schedule and again are a team capable of great things. Lightning-quick senior M/F Ryan Pierson (D-II national powerhouse Saginaw Valley State), senior M/D Henry Koelling, senior D Matt Park, senior D/F Joel VanHook, senior D Josh Hereozia, junior M Drake Midgley and sophomore M Ben Kiaowac form a solid nucleus. Senior Kevin Blasfeldt and junior Andrew Nicholson, a transfer from Novi, give C.C. two quality goalkeepers.


9. ANN ARBOR SKYLINE (20-1-0): Division 1 champs in 2013, Skyline reached a district final last season with an unbeaten record only to fall short. With eight returning starters and a significantly more difficult nonleague schedule on the slate, the Eagles are looking for a big season once again. Senior Blake Sunderman is a bulldog in the back and seniors Jordan Tinco (F), Elijah Mays (M) and Jack Ammerman (F) are all experienced players. Junior F Jack Bakker is slated for a big season. Sophomores Chris Emerson (D) and Brice Schaner (F) both come over from the Wolves Academy, and seniors Russ Noble and Karl Wixom split time in goal. Skyline started the season 6-0-2.


10. BRIGHTON (13-1-5): Behind stellar goalkeeping and a balanced offense, the Bulldogs had one of their best seasons in 2016, only losing one game and that came in a district final to Novi. Senior Riley Radwanski-Gallas is one of the state’s top 10 goalkeepers and will keep the Bulldogs in games. Senior F Keegan Gormley, junior M Chase Foresman, senior M Ian Sosenko and junior M/D Charlie Sharp, junior backs Colin Adam and Travis Huffman and sophomore forward Thomas Stanis. Three freshmen have also made an impact, including D Josh Adam, midfielder Casey McCarthy and F Seth Bedford. Brighton has never won a state title in soccer even though the Bulldogs have been a steady presence in the rankings dating back to the mid-1990s. 


11. PORTAGE CENTRAL (12-7-4): The Mustangs stayed in Portage Northern’s shadow the past two seasons. This year it will be Central’s time to shine, as the Mustangs return nine starters and 16 total letter-winners. Senior G Nick Kuppler, junior F Michael Ketterman, senior M Minh Le, junior F Elliot Greenhouse, senior D Mitchell Pollack, junior M/F Jason Mia, sophomore M Ben Kahmark, senior D Sam Scheffel and sophomore D Ben Sosville all started games last season and make up a seasoned group. Consistently a high-level program, Portage Central has never claimed a state title.


12. SALINE (14-5-3): The Hornets upset previously unbeaten Ann Arbor Skyline in a district final last season and will be another quality side this season that could make a deep run. Junior M Ryan Nichols is a crafty playmaker and set-up man, while sophomore F Zeke Gray comes over from the Wolves Academy and is scoring goals in bunches. Senior F Anthony Swier was the leading scorer last season and senior M/F Jack Fenlon is a capable scorer. In the back, junior G Quinn Fox and senior defenders Jake Caldwell and North York will help put a clamp down on opposing offenses.


13. PLYMOUTH (11-6-3): Now in its 15th season, Plymouth again is fielding a competitive side. It’s just that competing in the highly competitive KLAA and one of the state’s toughest districts hasn't left many championships on the Wildcats’ resume. There are 10 seniors in the starting lineup, led by D-I recruit Bennet Brooks, who plays in the midfield or on the back line. Senior G Chris Tszyoff, senior M/D Benjamin Tetlow, senior D Tommy Sullivan, senior D Alex Bowser and senior F Justin Wojick have all shined during Plymouth’s 4-0-3 start. 


14. SALEM (12-7-3): Salem started last season 1-4-0 but put things together and eventually knocked off No. 2 Canton and captured a district title. Don't be alarmed with the Rocks’ 5-4-0 start this season, mainly in tournaments, as this team will again be a factor. Senior F Jason Juarez comes over from the Wolves Academy and has made a huge impact. Senior M Christian Freitag (All-State Second Team), senior M Josh Stevens, senior D John Musai, another Wolves Academy transplant, senior G Burraq Oral, junior M Dave Dillon and junior F/M Thomas Done are part of Salem’s core. 


15. UTICA FORD (12-2-4): During the past decade, Ford has developed into one of the more consistent D-1 programs and will again contend for the MAC Red Division title and for a spot in the D-1 Top 20. Senior M/F Alejandro Steinwascher (All-State Second Team) is a dangerous player, senior JB Braganza anchors the back line and junior F Lorenzo Palazzolo are all college prospects. Senior D Tommasso Palazzolo, sophomore G Jeremy Taras. Senior D Jordan Chinoski, junior M Gabe Parra and sophomore M Mateo Gjurashaj, who played with the Vardar Academy, will also help the Falcons challenge for titles.


16. MACOMB DAKOTA (14-5-3): The Cougars are hoping to build upon their best season in school history (reached a regional final). There are eight starters back from a team that started 5-0-0, led by junior F Luigi Idhia (All-State Third Team). Junior M Stefano Moraccini, senior M Jack Barnett, senior D Blake Pearce, junior F Brendan Petz, senior M Mario Colella, senior D Christian Cobbs and senior G Aidan Genette all started games last season. Sophomores Garrett Barnett (D), Nestor Nestorovski (M/F) and Brady Zarschler (D) lead the newcomers.


17. CANTON (16-3-2): Ranked in the top five most of last season, the Chiefs were upset in a district semifinal by Salem. There is plenty of older talent which will help Canton reload. Senior M Avery Olson and senior F Jordan Forney are the sole full-time returning starters. Senior G David Sadanowicz, Netorsenior M Brett McGue and senior D Ethan Schiffour will see expanded roles this season. Freshman M Nick Yono is one of the best in the state in his class.


18. TROY (9-4-8): On a 21-member roster, there are 18 hungry seniors who hope to lead Troy to its first state semifinal since 2011. Senior D/M Darius Feier (Detroit Mercy) was All-State Second Team and the leader of this band. Senior D/F Connor Bloomingdale (Oakland) comes back from the Vardar Academy and senior F Joe Mason missed most of last season and is dangerous in front of net. Senior D Matt Panella, senior D/M Ben Kozel (Lehigh), senior M/D Jack Diadato is a D-I recruit who comes over from the Vardar Academy. Senior M Ken Dowling is a crafty playmaker. Seniors Will Myers and Nolan Regan give the Colts two capable goalkeepers. 


19. ROCHESTER ADAMS (12-5-4): Back-to-back large graduatio