BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — When Leland edged Hart in a shootout Friday night to win a Division 4 soccer regional, it raised a question.
When did the Comets last play in the Final Four?
"Someone said 1982," coach Joe Burda said.
Thirty years later, Leland's returning to the semifinals, facing Grand Rapids Covenant Christian at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Big Rapids.
The Comets enter with a 25-3 record.
"It's been a blast," Burda said. "Everyone dreams of playing in the Final Four, but we had our goals set for it, too. It's pretty cool to see it come to fruition."
Leland is one of three northern Michigan teams in semifinal play Wednesday. Petoskey takes on Cranbrook-Kingswood in Division 2 while Elk Rapids meets Williamston in Division 3.
Elk Rapids and Petoskey are rich in soccer history. The Elks reached the semifinals a year ago before falling to eventual state champion Detroit Country Day 2-1. The Elks won state titles in 1997 and 1998 and finished runner-up three other years. Petoskey captured state crowns in 1995 and 2008 and has two runner-ups.
For Leland, though, this is a relatively new experience.
"There's been a buzz here," Burda said. "A lot of people are calling, e-mailing or stopping in offering congratulations and wishing us good luck — from Leland and across northern Michigan. It's been cool."
Grand Rapids Covenant Christian, ranked No. 8 in Division 4, beat Hartford 2-0 to win its regional. Corbin Prince netted the two goals for the 18-4-1 Chargers, who limited Hartford to two shots on goal.
Burda said the Comets will not deviate from their style that's worked this season.
"We'll just do what we've been doing," he said. "We're not changing anything. We're going to go in playing our way."
Leland's features one of the most prolific scorers in the state in Dylan Jolliffe. He enters the clash with 65 goals. Matt Fleis has contributed 22 goals and 30 assists. Fleis scored three goals in Leland's 4-3 comeback win over North Muskegon in the regional opener.
"We've been telling the guys all season that Dylan's going to be a marked man — man-marked or double-teamed — so lots of things are going to open up for them," Burda said. "And they've been finishing."
Mike Farese has been strong in goal, allowing just 1.35 goals a game. He has 10 shutouts.
The Elk Rapids-Williamston contest is at 7 p.m. at Grand Rapids Christian. The two teams met earlier this season with the Hornets winning 3-1.
"We outshot them," Elks coach Nate Plum said. "We definitely had our opportunities. They capitalized on their opportunities, we didn't. I think we hit the bar five times. We've got to be more successful and aggressive around their net."
All three Williamston goals came on crosses, Plum said.
"I expect them to try to cross the ball on us again," he said. "They were really successful with that the last time. They have some big guys in the middle, and obviously some guys who can finish."
Williamston (18-7-1) won its first regional last Friday, blanking Frankenmuth 2-0. Elk Rapids (20-5) beat No. 3 Whitehall in a shootout.
"I think it will be a really close game as all games are at this point," Plum said. "I expect it to be another nailbiter with two teams putting everything they have into it so they can play again on Saturday."
Plum said he's stressed to his team this week the importance of putting it all on the line.
"Some (players) understand, but others might not comprehend how hard it is to get to this point," he said. "Time will come and go and you'll be sorry, looking back on it, if you didn't give it everything you had."
Plum said last fall's Final Four appearance should benefit the team.
"We had never been there before as a group," Plum said. "Elk Rapids has been there before. But those kids have come and gone, that coach has come and gone. For this group, and for me, it was a new experience. It definitely showed us how much harder you need to go and how much tighter these games get as you go on."
The Elks feature a balanced scoring attack with a handful of players hovering around the 20-goal mark. Austin McMullen is the leading scorer.
"That's the nice thing about this group," Plum said. "We can attack in so many different ways. We have so many different people who have come up big for us. That's made us more dangerous than last year when we had one big scorer (Zach Vandeveer). Now we have multiple people who can finish."