NORTON SHORES – Seeing the Western Michigan Christian boys soccer team in the state semifinals is hardly unusual.
The Warriors have been there plenty of times, en route to seven state championships in program history.
But midway through the 2022 season, they didn’t seem like a great bet to make a run this fall, at least based on their record.
The Warriors started out the season with three straight losses, won two games, then lost two more, leaving them with a 2-5 mark.
More than one WMC fan probably thought this was just not their year, but that turned out to be a premature calculation.
WMC, now 14-8-2 and riding a seven-game winning streak, will play Leland (19-3-1) on Wednesday in Kentwood in a Division 4 state semifinal game.
The winner will advance to Saturday’s state championship game, in either Comstock Park or Novi, against the survivor of the Ann Arbor Greenhills-Plymouth Christian semifinal.
WMC will be trying to earn its 16th appearance in the state finals, which would put the Warriors in a tie for the all-time record.
If the Warriors’ advancement to the state Final Four is a surprise to some, it’s not to the players or third-year head coach Ben Buursma.
Burrsma said the season was designed to be a building project and his team is actually right on schedule.
“The way we set up the schedule was to build up to where we are now,” said Buursma, whose team purposefully scheduled tough opponents from bigger schools, like Mona Shores and Reeths-Puffer.
“Every year we have new guys coming on, some who are multi-sport athletes and don’t focus on soccer year round, and it takes a bit to get into the rhythm of things and find a regular lineup that clicks.
“The main things we were focused on were passing and possession, and we’ve really made some good strides there, and our defenders have made some incredible strides, too.”
On Oct. 1 the Warriors were 7-8-2 following a loss to West Michigan Aviation Acacemy, but they haven’t lost since then.
They ended the regular season with wins over Ravenna, Grand Rapids Covenant Christian and Orchard View, then cruised to a Division 4 district championship with victories over Ravenna (6-0) and Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (4-1).
Last week they won a regional championship by defeating Howardsville Christian 3-0 in the semifinals and a very good Hartford team 3-2 in the finals.
Now they are two wins away from reclaiming the state title they last won in 2019.
Buursma said the Oct. 1 loss against Aviation Academy was a wake-up call for the Warriors, and they responded.
“After that game the guys really buckled down and worked very hard on improving team chemistry, making sure everyone was playing for the right reasons, and focusing on winning a state title,” he said.
The tournament run is a new experience for Buursma, because his team ran into some very tough postseason luck in his first two years on the job.
In 2020 the Warriors lost to Leland 2-1 in the regional semifinals in a game that was settled in an overtime shootout.
Last season they lost in the district semifinals to Potters House in a very unusual contest. A storm forced the game to be played over two days, the score was tied 1-1 after regulation and two overtime periods, and again WMC lost 2-1 in a shootout.
This season fate has smiled on the Warriors, they have district and regional trophies to show for their effort, and they could win the biggest trophy of all in the next few days.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Buursma, who noted that tournament games are extra difficult because every team gives it everything they have. ‘I never imagined how hard it is. Nobody wants their season to end, that’s for sure.”
WMC has a very balanced scoring attack with six or seven forwards who are capable of finding the net. The team’s leading scorers are seniors Ashton Leffring with 22 goals and Gavin Riksen with 18.
They also have an outstanding senior goalkeeper, Jared Olsen, who has four shutouts during the seven-game winning streak and has only allowed four goals in that span.
“His improvement has been incredible,” Buursma said about Olsen. “He stepped in (as the starter) toward the end of the 2020 season and he’s really hitting his stride. He’s always been solid, but now he’s a phenomenal keeper hitting another level.”
Leland is a very familiar opponent for the Warriors in the postseason. Besides the 2020 loss, the Warriors lost to the Comets in the 2018 tournament. They haven’t beaten Leland in the postseason since 2015.
The two teams met up in August of this season and Leland won 1-0.
“They are fast and physical and have some real scoring threats,” Buursma said.