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Gielczyk: Shelby Making History in 2016

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This could be the Tigers’ year. No, not those Tigers, but the Shelby Tigers. And the boys soccer team, specifically.

It’s been 11 years since the Shelby boys soccer team won a district championship, but they certainly appear poised to end that drought this year with an offense that has accounted for close to 100 goals (94), while the defense has allowed a total of nine all season.

Shelby overcame an early 1-0 deficit to score a pair of unanswered goals in defeating North Muskegon, 2-1, in the West Michigan Conference tournament championship game on Tuesday and earned a share of the conference title with a 7-1-1 conference record.

And that ended an even longer drought for the Tigers because it was their first league title, shared or otherwise, in 16 years. The last time they sat atop the league standings at the close of the regular season was in 2000.

North Muskegon and Shelby split their season series. Shelby’s only tie was to Whitehall, 1-1, at the very beginning of the season.

While the offense has been markedly improved, the Tigers (16-1-1 overall) still hang their hat on defense.

Shelby has recorded 10 shutouts this season. The most goals that have been scored on the Tigers is two, and that ironically was by North Muskegon, and their goals against average is less than half a goal a game.

Last year was very similar as the Tigers opened the season with eight consecutive shutouts and finished with 12 for the season, allowing just 11 goals to be scored against them in 23 games.

But the Tigers were only 12-5-6, and all those ties were the result of their inability to put the ball in the net. Especially in crucial situations. This year has been a different story.

One of the big reasons why the Tigers are scoring more goals this season is senior forward Kaleb Hams, who transferred to Shelby from Montague and is their leading scorer with 28 goals, and Fernando Cabrera, who is a close second with 22.

Still, it’s the defense that has won games for the Tigers and it’s an experienced one with only one starter graduating off last year’s team.

The three defenders back there are all seniors — Mackenzie Wagner, Connor Zaverl and Spencer Brown. Another senior, Jake Lankfer, was switched to defense this year and the Tigers picked up junior Jorge Cavazos from football – and the Tigers have not missed a beat.

“It’s just really hard to get through them,” Shelby head coach Pete Peterson said. “People think they’re just going to come right down on us and score. But they don’t realize that every one of those guys is fairly fast.

“Mackenzie is very fast, and they all can handle the ball. If you can get through them, you’re going to be attacked two seconds later by somebody else who’s slid over to help them. You’re really not ever getting a clean look because they cover each other so well, and they know each other so well.
“We’re enjoying that ride right now. I really don’t know what it’s going to look like next year, but I really don’t care right now because these guys have worked hard to get where they are.”

Confidence has been the difference on offense.

“(Hams) has a good nose for the ball,” Peterson said. “All of my senior kids have got three, four, five goals each. Everyone’s scoring when we need to score. We’re probably doing more offensive shooting drills than we’ve ever done.

“I stress to them every day that ‘You’ve got to focus, because this might be the one shot that you get in a game and you need to put this one shot in.’ They’ve been buying into that. We’re running some different sets that we haven’t run before. We’re forcing certain things to happen where we want them to happen on the field and that’s creating all kinds of open looks for us.”

Shelby has checked off one goal. One more remains.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News.