BIG RAPIDS — Any regional championship, especially one as hard-fought as North Muskegon’s against Harbor Springs in girls soccer Friday night, should feel better than this.
North Muskegon’s 1-0 victory over Harbor Springs at Big Rapids High School’s Cardinal Stadium gave the Norse their sixth straight Division 4 regional title. Thrilled as the Norse are to hoist another trophy and head back to the state semifinals, they’re also frustrated, confused and a bit broken-hearted.
It’s because junior Kennedi Koekkoek — North Muskegon’s top defender, who also accounted for the Norse’s lone goal Friday — received a red card that many believe was administered in error for what was ruled an illegal, intentional touch in the goalbox. By MHSAA rule, Koekkoek was ejected from the game because of the red card and, consequently, she is unable to play in next Wednesday’s state semifinals against nemesis Kalamazoo Christian.
“For us to battle shorthanded most of that second half is just insane for those girls to do that. They’re all tired, exhausted …,” North Muskegon coach Caleb Parnin said. “You try to think of any strategy you can but like they say, if you’re down a player, play like you’re not and we tried our best there and super proud of how they did that and held them off, but that was insane.”
The controversy centered around an alert defensive play by Koekkoek with just under 19 minutes remaining in regulation when she helped preserve the win and ultimately North Muskegon’s season.
With North Muskegon clinging to a 1-0 lead, Harbor Springs put a shot on Norse junior keeper Emma Lamiman, who turned away the attempt. With Lamiman pulled out of position, the Rams collected the rebound and appeared to have a wide-open net, but Koekkoek stepped in and deflected the ball with her left thigh. From the vantage point of North Muskegon’s bench area, the ball did not appear to touch Koekkoek’s hand nor did she appear to make any intentional movement to do so.
However, the center referee saw it differently. It resulted in a red card for Koekkoek, who was suddenly out of the game and likely will miss the next one, too, unless an appeal can be made to the MHSAA.
Making matters worse for North Muskegon: Harbor Springs received a penalty kick. However, the Rams fired high over the crossbar and the Norse killed off the final 18-plus minutes to put away the win.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
“(The ball) came back to me and I went like this with my leg (making a kicking motion with her left leg). It hit me in my left thigh,” said Koekkoek, who was distraught after the ejection but composed herself for a postgame tandem interview with Lamiman.
“(The center referee) said I used my hand to block the goal, which if you’re (not a keeper and) using your hands to block the goal, it’s a red card but I did not and I will put this on my life — I did not hit (the ball) with my hand. I know what that would cause.”
Parnin disagreed with the call. He asked for an explanation from the official in question, who came over to the sideline to explain what he saw, but the referee held firm. The call and red card held.
Parnin said after the game there is no recourse, although his assistant coaches and others close to the program were hopeful an appeal could be made.
If not, second-ranked North Muskegon (17-3-1) — winner of 15 straight matches — will be without a key player when the Norse take on seventh-ranked Kalamazoo Christian (17-6-0) at 6 p.m. next Wednesday in Cedar Springs. Kalamazoo Christian, which rolled St. Joseph Our Lady of the Lake Catholic 7-0 on Friday, defeated North Muskegon in last year’s state semifinals, 1-0.
“I think I had a better angle than (the referee) did — I’m not sure — but you can see it hit her thigh. He said it hit her arm; I don’t know what to tell you there, but it surely wasn’t what I saw,” Parnin said. “For that call in that big of a moment, for our kids to just battle through that is just wild. Super proud of them for battling through that but, man, that took every bit we had.
“But, you can’t just make excuses. You’ve got to fight through it, right, and good teams survive. To give up a PK there, too, I mean, that’s quite a call against us. But, (you just) survive.”
Koekkoek got North Muskegon on the board with 22:51 left in the first half and it proved to be the game’s lone tally. She collected the ball on the left wing inside the 18-yard box and with her left foot fired a shot that ricocheted off the underside of the crossbar and into the goal.
North Muskegon’s defense, coupled with a couple nice saves by Lamiman, did the rest for the Norse although it was tense down the stretch — the red card and penalty kick proving a big turning point.
“I mean, after the girl missed the PK, I knew honestly (Koekkoek’s heady defensive play) was the best option we had. They were really close to scoring after I came out (of the goalbox),” Lamiman said. “It was a really good save on her part and the rest of our defense.”
It was the third straight shutout for Lamiman and 10th for her during the Norse’s current winning streak.
“I don’t know how she does it in goal, honestly, especially like the PK — I would not be able to,” Koekkoek said.
Said Lamiman: “I know, like, where their plant foot, where they plant their foot, that’s where it’s going to go, so I kind of read her shot but luckily for me it went over (the crossbar) so I didn’t have to do anything.”
It was a feeling of victory and relief for Lamiman in that moment. After the game, Lamiman was able to smile for a bit, but the Norse know things will not be easy going forward without Koekkoek.
Had an unintentional handball in the goalbox been called instead, a PK would have resulted but Koekkoek would not have been ejected and she would be good to go for the next game.
“I was honestly very confused at first. I didn’t know why or what the call was at all,” Lamiman said.
“Yeah, at first, I didn’t know what it was either,” Koekkoek interjected. “I thought they might’ve just called like a handball in the box — not anything like I tried to block it with my hand actually. I thought they just called a casual handball, you know, like whatever. And then he came back and I saw him pull out the red card and I’m like, ‘Where’s he going with it?’ And then he said it was me and I’m like, ‘What?’ I was looking around because I was so confused on what happened and then after he did it … it’s just hard for me to (explain).”
Lamiman, Parnin and the rest of the Norse are in agreement how important Koekkoek is to their team.
Like Parnin stated, you try and roll with the punches, but it’s tough without such an impact player.
North Muskegon, which beat Harbor Springs (8-13-3) by a 3-0 score earlier this season, earned a tough regional finals win over the Rams for a second straight year. Last season, North Muskegon defeated Harbor Springs in a PK shootout.
“(She’s) very important. To be able to be a defender and score the game-winning goal is really huge for our team,” said Lamiman, who then put her arm around Koekkoek and pulled her close for a hug.
In Koekkoek’s mind, Lamiman is every bit as important to the Norse’s success.
“I mean, she’s gotten us this far. Just having her in the back, she’s my safe spot so I know when it goes back there, she knows how to play, she knows how to save them,” Koekkoek said. “It’s really a relief having her back there.”
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