Grand Rapids FC’s inaugural season reached its culmination on Saturday evening. After an incredible penalty kick comeback on Friday in the National Semifinals, Saturday saw the Girls in Blue host Santa Clarita Blue Heat for the National Championship.
Santa Clarita came into the match with an undefeated record and looking to defend its 2016 national title. The Blue Heat also came in with 30 minutes less wear and tear on their legs, having claimed a 3-0 win in regulation the night before.
Despite facing a side with fresher legs and the experience of having won a national title, the grit and determination of the Girls in Blue, as well as the support of 1000-plus fans in attendance, propelled the home side to victory in another overtime thriller. Saturday’s match would not need penalty kicks as wo goals in the first overtime proved to be the difference for Grand Rapids FC as it captured a 3-1 win and the National Championship in its first season.
In the opening moments of the game, Santa Clarita held the majority of the possession. A 5th minute cross from the Blue Heat was cleared away by defender Clare Carlson, however, preventing an attempt on goal for the visiting side.
Santa Clarita continued to pressure, and in the 14th minute, a cross from the left wing was volleyed into the back of the net Kodi Lavrusky.
Less than a minute later, Grand Rapids FC leveled the score as Marti Corby made a nice turn at the top of the box to create just enough space to hit the ball with her left foot and into the bottom right corner of the net.
In the 32nd minute, a GRFC turnover resulted in a good look on goal for the Blue Heat, but the ensuing shot was wide of frame.
Just before halftime, Lizzie Paul nearly broke the deadlock as she hit a ball from distance that looked to be heading for the top corner. Santa Clarita goalkeeper Ryann Torrero was able to knock the ball over the bar, however, and the game remained tied through the break.
In the second half, the action continued to be back and forth as each side saw opportunities to take the lead.
For Santa Clarita, a well hit free kick from Deyna Castellanos was tipped over the bar by GRFC goalkeeper Reilley Ott in the 64th minute, while Corby had a shot on goal that was saved in the 78th minute.
Neither team could find the go-ahead score, and for the second night in a row, Grand Rapids was set to play an extra 30 minutes.
“We talked about it in this game same as yesterday, if we get to overtime, we go 12 against 11 because the fans did not stop going for 30 minutes,” said head coach Lewis Robinson. “We were confident that if we went to overtime, we would win.”
Seven minutes into the first overtime, the Girls in Blue did find the goal that would put them ahead, and eventually, earn them the national title.
A long free kick was sent in from near midfield by Corby. After taking a deflection off the head of the defender, the ball fell to the foot of Riko Sagara who beat the charging keeper to the ball and sent it into the back of the net.
In the 104th minute, Grand Rapids added an insurance goal as Avery Lockwood played a through ball to Bethany Balcer whose shot was deflected by a Blue Heat defender and into the net.
The second overtime was mostly a formality as Santa Clarita saw one more opportunity on goal, but no serious threats on keeper Reilley Ott as Grand Rapids ran down the clocked and claimed the championship.
“Obviously, we got what we were fighting for, and it can’t be a better feeling,” said Annie Steinlage, who played all 240 minutes of Friday and Saturday’s matches. “Putting our bodies through that over the course of 24 hours, it is an incredible feat for the core of us who put those minutes in. And for the subs, there is a certain mentality you have to have to play in those games. I’m proud of everybody.”
Sagara also noted the tough play over the weekend, and the level of play from the visiting teams that left Grand Rapids trailing in both matches.
“In our conference, our team was great, but the other teams weren’t amazing. But at the National Tournament, the game Friday and this game, were more difficult,” said Sagara. “That was a little bit hard for us to get used to.”
However, the resolve of Grand Rapids shown through in both matches, and no player embodied that determination more than captain Michaela “Mouse” Kovacs. For her game-tying goal on Friday and defensive effort throughout the weekend, Kovacs was named the Most Valuable Player of the UWS National Tournament.
“It takes a team of mentally strong individuals to push through two overtime games, and get two wins out of it,” said Kovacs. “We came to a competitive league, and topped our conference, and it was hard, the games were hard, and there was no easy route to the top. Then coming to the National Tournament, the teams from California and Long Island, those were tough teams.”
Goalkeeper Reilley Ott, Marti Corby, and Annie Steinlage were also honored as they were named to the All-Championship Team, joining Kovacs.
“It’s hard to put into words to be honest. For these ladies to play 240 minutes at that level, you can’t explain it,” said Robinson. “Mouse is a fireball and a leader, and the second half of her game today was about as good a game as you’ll ever see. She played every one of those 240 minutes, and she played every one of them probably harder than anybody else.”
It was a surreal end to a whirlwind first season that saw incredible support and an impressive on-field product. The team had high expectations, but topping the league in its first season wasn’t necessarily one of them.
“Definitely not this,” responded Robinson when asked about the team’s expectations. “We wanted to be competitive, but this is amazing. In the game of soccer, whenever you get to a tournament, anything can happen. It would’ve taken a lot to beat these girls in front of 1000 people, and we knew at that point we were confident in any game, and I couldn’t be more proud of these ladies.”
“It’s hard to put into words how incredible this is, because we honestly didn’t know what to expect coming into the season” said president Matt Roberts. “For Lewis to put a roster together from scratch, for all these players to buy in without knowing what it was going to be and who was going to play, and for all the fans to buy in – this is the dream for our first season.”