No. 2 Royal Oak Shrine beats No. 11 Saginaw Nouvel in D4 semis, advancing to first-ever championship game
TROY — During most championship-caliber seasons, there’s a point at which a coach realizes their team has the potential to make a run, the potential to do something unprecedented.
For Royal Oak Shrine coach Mark Soma, that point was the first practice with his Knights.
Three months later, his feeling has been proven correct.
No. 2-ranked Shrine knocked off No. 11 Saginaw Nouvel, 6-0, in Wednesday’s Division 4 semifinal match at Troy High School, sending the Knights to their first-ever championship game on Saturday.
“They’re pretty high. Excitement. Tears. I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words just yet,” Soma said of his emotions. “It’s the first time the girls have ever been this far, so it’s quite an accomplishment for us.”
Before this season, postseason success hadn’t been a familiar feeling for the Knights.
“We’ve never actually won districts before, so it’s an amazing feeling to get this far. It’s a really great group of girls. We work together, work hard at practice, and the hard work has really paid dividends,” said senior Chloe Woodbeck.
“We’ve always had pressure, ever since the first district game, because we wanted to make Shrine history, and now that we have, I think we’re just really excited to go along on the journey. I don’t think the pressure’s going to get to us.”
They’ll face No. 4-ranked Kalamazoo Christian, a 1-0 winner over No. 1 North Muskegon, in Saturday’s D4 championship game. The game is set for 1 p.m. at Michigan State University’s DeMartin Soccer Complex.
“It’ll be emotional either way,” Soma said. “We don’t want to lose, though. We’re there to win, and I think we have a good shot.”
The biggest reason the Knights (23-1) might have a very good shot is Woodbeck. When she decided to play for her high school as a senior, rather than for her club, Hawks Academy, the Purdue-bound Woodbeck made potentially a very solid Shrine team into an instant contender.
“Well, we had a good team returning, a lot of three-year starters back, plus you add Chloe to the mix — probably the first practice I had a good idea we were going to make a run, anyway,” Soma said. “Our district is always killer: We always play (Grosse Pointe Woods University) Liggett and (Madison Heights Bishop) Foley in our district, so we’ve always had a hard time just getting out of our district. As soon as we did that, I knew we could make a run.”
For the players, it took a bit longer to figure out, but it wasn’t something they didn’t eventually discover for themselves.
“I think it wasn’t until a few games in, when we were just scoring tons of goals. It was not necessarily new for Shrine, because they’ve had great goal-scorers in the past, but just to score so many goals — not just beating teams 1-0, but 5-0 and mercying them — I think that’s when we knew we can do this, we can make it this far,” said Woodbeck, who is loving the experience of playing for her high school team.
“It’s amazing. That’s why I did it. Our school is so supportive, and it’s just an amazing feeling, looking over at the sidelines, and it’s completely filled. At club games, it’s like five people and your parents. It’s just so much fun. To hear them cheer, it’s like — it just gives me chills, because it’s such a great experience.”
The Nouvel Panthers knew who they had to stop, in large part because coach Matthew Solek is a coach in the Hawks Academy system. That knowledge didn’t make it any easier.
“Oh, absolutely, and it didn’t happen. … The kids kept working hard, but sometimes, you can’t stop a player,” Solek said. “Well, I mean, when you’re 6-foot-3 or whatever she is, and run a 4.1(-second) 40, what are you going to do?”
Woodbeck got the Knights in the board less than five minutes in, then set up the next two goals — one to Ellie Plunkey, another to Clara North — on corner kicks.
"I saw Clara North. Pretty much I always look for her head. She’s amazing in the air, so if you serve her right at the top of the stick, she’s always there. One of them happened to miss her, and Ellie got it in, which is just as good,” Woodbeck said. “It depends on who is making the run. If there’s no one making a run, I just land it in the middle of the sticks, but if I call a name, and see someone running, I try to get it on their head.”
Plunkey’s goal with 13:39 left in the first half gave Shrine a 2-0 lead at the break, then North scored three minutes into the second half to make it 3-0.
Woodbeck dribbled through traffic to score her second with 19:48 left, making it 4-0, then assisted on Plunkey’s breakaway goal with 1:49 left in the game to close out the scoring. In between, North scored from 25 yards out with 16:44 left.
While it’s been an historic season for Shrine, it’s been a rebound one for Nouvel. The Panthers have been this far before, making it to the state finals in 2004, but were coming off a 3-12 campaign.
They got their own player back from club soccer in senior Katherin Felton, who scored 41 goals, but she was just one of three seniors for Nouvel this season.
“We have 11 freshmen on the team, and six sophomores, three seniors. Young group of kids. It didn’t really matter, and they just kept working hard,” said Solek, whose team was on a 13-game win streak entering Wednesday’s semifinal. “Well, we went back to square one, and rebuilt the program from the ground up. I knew that we had some freshmen coming in that were talented, but it was going to take more than them.”