NORTON SHORES – Out of the millions of kids who play high school sports every year, only a handful ever get to experience the type of thrill that Matthew Bradford-Royle had on Saturday.
His Western Michigan Christian boys soccer team was playing Ann Arbor Greenhills for a Division 4 state championship in Novi, and nobody was scoring in the challenging weather conditions.
It wasn’t until midway through the second half that the stalemate was broken, and the only goal of the day came from the foot of Bradford-Royle, who kicked in the rebound of a blocked free kick taken by WMC’s leading scorer, Ashton Leffring.
That gave WMC and exciting 1-0 victory and the eighth state championship in program history.
It also earned Bradford-Doyle a permanent place in Warrior soccer lore. It was a moment he will be recounting for his children and grandchildren for years, probably after they’ve already heard the story several dozen times.
“I knew he (Ashton) was going to take the free kick,” Bradford-Royle said about the game-winning goal. “He was practicing that in warmups and going to the lower right corner. So I knew I had to run in for the rebound. I ran in and got the rebound and put the ball on the opposite side. It was a great goal.
“It feels great. We worked really hard to get where we are and it’s great to see it pay off.
“I’ll tell my kids about it one day. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I thank God for this opportunity, and I’ll never forget that moment.”
The victory completed a great second half of the season for the Warriors.
The Warriors started out the season with three straight losses, won two games, then lost two more, leaving them with a 2-5 mark.
On Oct. 1 they were 7-8-2 following a loss to West Michigan Aviation Acacemy, but didn’t lose again after that.
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).
In regionals they defeated Howardsville Christian 3-0 and a very good Hartford team 3-2, then rallied to beat longtime rival Leland in the state semifinals, 3-1.
That led to the one-goal state championship game, when WMC returned to the top of the hill.
A big key to WMC’s victory came in the first half, when the Warriors were battling both Ann Arbor Greenhills and a very strong wind.
Greenhills had the wind at its back, and the fact that the Warriors were able to keep the score 0-0 was a huge plus.
After halftime, of course, the teams switched goals and the Warriors had the wind and the opportunity that Bradford-Royle cashed in on.
“We knew we took their best shot in the first half and survived it,” WMC Coach Ben Buursma said about getting past the wind factor. “With about 10 minutes left in that first half, we settled into our game and began to work the ball around and keep possession. We knew we’d get the winner at some point.”
Another key to victory was the strong play of senior goalkeeper Jared Olsen, who made six critical saves.
“The defense was solid with keeping chances away,” said Olsen about the defense his teammates played in front of him. “They had a few solid shots but everything else, our defense was able to shut down quickly.”
Perhaps Olsen’s biggest moments came down the stretch after the Warriors’ goal, according to his coach.
“They had some decent chances,” Buursma said. “Jared made a couple of really good saves toward the end of the game and our defense was solid. We really kind of choked off any of their really good opportunities.”
The state championship is the first for Buursma, who took over the program in 2020, a year after the Warriors brought home their last title.
“It was pandemonium,” the coach said about his team’s reaction when the clock ran out. “It was a great release. We had so much excitement and we were all celebrating such a big moment.
“It feels great. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. My staff is fantastic and we’re just so happy to be able to continue this winning tradition.”
Olsen said he was thrilled to help Buursma get his first title.
“It means a lot,” the goalie said. “My first year on varsity was his first year coaching us. None of us but Ashton were on the 2019 team. The past two years were more of a rebuild, but we’ve gotten it together and came back quickly. It’s really encouraging, and it means a lot to win it all for all of us, including coach and his staff.”