The soccer climate in mid-Michigan – and the rest of the United States, for that matter – was drastically different when Phil Malefyt coached the Lansing Christian girls soccer team around the turn of the new millennium.
Club, also referred to as travel-team soccer, now reigns supreme in soccer circles. And up-and-coming players seeking scholarships at the collegiate level are more likely to play the sport year-round.
Roughly 20 years ago, Malefyt didn’t have many of these players at his disposal. But he’s now reaping the benefits as an assistant coach for the Division 4 No. 1-ranked Pilgrims, who have outscored their opponents, 44-1, during their postseason run, which resumes Friday against No. 5-ranked Manchester in the regional finals.
“When I was coaching, if you had two or three premier (travel-team) players, you would be pleased,” he said. “We have eight freshmen that are travel-team players. There’s only a handful of players (on our team) that aren’t.
“These players are so experienced. It’s a night-and-day difference.”
Lansing Christian has bullied its way through the postseason tournament. The Pilgrims (20-1-2), who outscored their opponents, 122-5, during the regular season, opened district play with an 18-0 victory, which was followed by an 8-1 win over Dansville and a 10-0 win over Springport for the district title. They advanced to Friday’s contest by defeating Plymouth Christian, 8-0, in the regional semis.
Ten-year head coach Joel Vande Kopple credits the influx of club players into the program for his team’s success. But he added that his team’s hunger to get back to the state title game, after a one-goal loss last season, has helped fuel the fire.
“We have a lot of girls come back that are hungry to take that next step. That was the driving force for the girls returning,” Vande Kopple said. “They set the tone.”
Sophomore Kasey Jamieson, junior Juliana Figueiredo and freshman Ally Melvin have been the Pilgrims’ three-headed scoring attack this year. Jamieson, who scored 49 goals as a freshman, now has 47 this season. Figueiredo and Melvin each have 20-plus goals.
Vande Kopple said he doesn’t coach up his high-scoring trio too much, as he relies on them to use their creativity in the attacking third. That freedom is what Melvin believes has made her transition into the program effortless.
“We have really good chemistry with each other,” the freshman said. “It’s great playing up top with both of them because they’re so good. I can learn so much from them.
“No one fights to get more goals than the other one. We play as a team.”
One concern Vande Kopple had coming into this season was replacing his defense. The Pilgrims lost their back line and goalkeeper to graduation, but quickly found solid replacements in Holt transfer Abby Krueger and freshman Kealeigh Usiak.
Sophomore Alex Hanks, who moved from the field to the net this season, has spent many a night watching her teammates control possession and light up the scoreboard from afar. She’s wishing for more of the same going forward.
“I don’t get that much action,” Hanks said. “It gets a little boring at times.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.
Friday’s regional final schedule
DIVISION 3 (at Williamston)
Grosse Ile vs. Williamston, 7 p.m.
DIVISION 4 (at Spring Arbor University)
Manchester vs. Lansing Christian, 7 p.m.