Mason — Detroit Country Day was making its first appearance in the championship game in eight years and was looking to bring home its first title since 2004.
But its quest will go on as Hudsonville Unity Christian’s relentless pressure led to three second-half goals and a 3-1 victory over Country Day in the Division 3 soccer final Saturday. It was the eighth state title and second in three years for Unity Christian.
After a back-and-forth first half, third-ranked Country Day (21-4-3) clung to a 1-0 lead at halftime, but Unity Christian came out determined in the second half, recording the first two shots on goal.
It finally broke through at the 29:13 mark. After Country Day freshman goalie Isabel Nino made a save that bounced off the crossbar and over the net, Unity Christian’s Aubrey Schierbeek scored on the ensuing corner kick. Her kick hooked over the outstretched arms of Nino, deflected off the far goalpost and bounced in to tie the game at 1-1 — the first goal Country Day had allowed in the postseason.
No. 2-ranked Unity Christian (23-1) continued to pepper Nino with shots and eventually snapped the tie at the 13:06 mark. Schierbeek got a clean look in the box and hooked a shot into the top left corner for her second unassisted goal and a 2-1 lead.
A little over two minutes later, Unity Christian struck again, Rachel Roerig blasting a pass from Schierbeek past Nino from in front of the net to push it to 3-1 with 10:52 left.
“In the second half we said, ‘We got to make their goalkeeper make some saves and put some pressure on her,’ ” Unity Christian coach Randy Heethuis said.
“Aubrey stepped up big. She put this team on her back and said, ‘OK. Let’s go. Give me the ball.’
“That first goal gave us a huge lift and from there her second goal was a beautiful ball. Her first goal was with her right foot and second was with her left foot. We got a glimpse of the complete player she is. And she assisted on the third one. She’s a pretty special player.”
After outshooting Unity Christian 2-1 in the first half, Country Day was unable to apply any pressure on the back line after halftime since the majority of the second half was played on its side of the field. Country Day was outshot 13-3 in the second half and 14-5 for the game.
Nino finished with 11 saves for Country Day.
“We lost to the better team. No doubt they were the better team,” Country Day coach Bob Bukari said.
“... They totally outplayed us in the second half. We hit a wall and kids get frustrated when they don’t understand why calls are made that we don’t understand. They take themselves out the game psychologically and it’s hard to compete on an uneven field.
“They are the state champions and we are the runner-up. Congratulations to them. They’re wonderfully coached and are a great team to watch.”
Country Day struck first and took a quick 1-0 lead four minutes into the first half behind Michelle Manning’s goal. After the ball was dumped into Unity Christian’s territory, the senior forward cut to the outside around a defender and fired a shot from close range along the left side of the box that Veeneman dove for and blocked. Manning corralled the rebound and placed it into the back right corner of the net past Veeneman, who was unable to recover in time.
Country Day nearly doubled up Unity Christian with under seven minutes left in the first. Manning sent an outlet pass up the right sideline for Sonja Niederhofer, who had gotten behind Unity Christian’s back line. Niederhofer sent a pass across to an open Dagny Hill for a clean look at the top of the box, but Hill lost control of the ball and was unable to get off a shot before Veeneman scooped it up.
In the sixth minute of the second half, Country Day almost scored again. Hill sent a cross from the right side but it bounced off the crossbar and a Unity Christian defender was able to clear it.
“We should’ve had a second goal in the first half,” Bukari said. “We had a girl in the front of the net who takes an extra touch and then had one off the crossbar that would’ve changed the impact of the game. We had our chances. We just didn’t finish them.”
James Hawkins is a freelance writer