ROCKFORD — Champions adjust.
It’s a phrase Traverse City West soccer coach Matt Griesinger employs.
Traverse City West (16-4-2) employed it well Tuesday, adjusting to cold, wet, sloppy conditions to best Portage Northern (13-8-2) 5-2 in a Division 1 boys soccer regional semifinal at Rams Stadium in Rockford.
“That just means that we try to be tougher than the situation that presents itself,” Griesinger said. “So we talked about being tougher than the weather.”
Despite consistent rain through most of the game and a field gouged by the physical play between West and Portage Northern, Titan fans let out a collective scream that was heard for blocks in the residential areas surrounding Rams Stadium when Josh Hirschenberger scored to give West a 2-1 lead.
A ball boy ran onto the field behind play and repaired several large divots, including one about five feet long after a player slid on the wet surface and took a long path of grass with his cleats.
“Both teams play on it, but they could have picked a better surface,” Portage Northern head coach J.D. Rhodes said. “But both teams play on it, so you do with what you’ve got.”
Players slipped and fell on a regular basis, which created opportunities for both teams. West capitalized on more of those, generating a 3-1 halftime lead.
“I thought it was fun, honestly, a little cold but I like a good grind of a game so when everyone’s slipping it’s just about who’s tougher,” West senior Grant Holfels said. “Even though everyone’s kind of losing their footing all the time, we just kept our composure a little more, I think.”
Sophomore Colin Blackport scored two goals, although you wouldn’t know it from listening to his Titan teammates, who call him Brock.
“The first night of tryouts (my freshman year), one of the coaches messed up my name and he called me Brock,” Blackport said. “And then everyone started calling me Brock. Nobody knew me, and then it just kind of stuck.”
Portage probably knows him by Colin Blackport. Or the guy who put West on the board first, then gave the Titans a 4-2 lead with 24 minutes remaining.
Tony Gallegos scored to make it 3-1 before halftime, on a Blackport assist.
“I tell you what, Traverse City came out hungry,” Rhodes said. “Number five (Holfels) steps in and just cut us off either way. They just came up with all sorts of energy. We came out a little bit flat, and they put a lot of pressure on us early, so I think that was the difference.”
Blackport ended up figuring in four of West’s five goals, assisting on Hirschenberger’s as well.
Holfels all but put the game away with a goal with 6:08 remaining after the Huskies had trimmed West’s lead to 4-2 on a header by Zander Crooks.
Blade Kalbfleisch, who made four saves, came up with a big one with five minutes left, diving to his right to snuff out a prime Northern opportunity.
West meets the winner of Wednesday’s contest between Grand Haven (9-8-4) and No. 1-ranked Okemos (18-1), both of whom the Titans have already played this season.
“Playoff soccer is weird in that way,” Griesinger said. “I’d love to see Okemos again. I’d also love to see Grand Haven again. It’s hard not to use the word ‘redemption’ if it’s Okemos, but I also don’t think we played our best soccer when we beat Grand Haven in our place. So either team I’d like to see. Both are quality sides.”
West played all three other regional teams in August. The Titans tied Portage Northern 1-1 to open the season, lost to Okemos 6-0 and beat Grand Haven 4-3.
“We’re a different team now, a different team,” Holfels said of the Okemos result. “A lot has changed since then.”