Last year, at Reach 11 Sports Complex in Phoenix, Ariz., the Grand Rapids Crew Jrs found themselves celebrating something that had eluded them the previous three years. A dream that once seemed unattainable came true as the Grand Rapids Crew became National Champions for the first time in four attempts, and hoisted the Under-17 Boys Don Greer Cup and both the Golden Glove and Golden Ball for most outstanding keeper and player in the field.
In previous years, Grand Rapids Crew Jrs had found themselves heading home early. They failed to advance out of the group stage of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 US Youth Soccer National Championships, despite a total record of four wins, three losses and two ties. Grand Rapids Crew Jrs have not only reached the National Championships every year, but they had to find different ways to get there.
In 2008, Grand Rapids Crew Jrs won the Michigan State Cup and Region II Championships to reach the National finals. In 2009, the team claimed one of two bids through the US Youth Soccer National League, falling in the Region II semifinals after another State Championship. In 2010, they again advanced to the National Championships via the National League while also claiming the Region II title, advancing to the Regional tournament via the Midwest Regional League and avenging a loss from the State final that year. However, each time they came up just short on the national stage.
The path they would take to win the 2011 National Championship would be a similar story to the prior years but with a much happier ending.
After a difficult National League season, Grand Rapids Crew Jrs got back to their winning ways as they marched through the 2011 Michigan State Cup knock out stage without conceding a goal to claim the State crown. In the Region II Championships they continued their winning ways again, finding themselves undefeated and making quick work of their opponents through the group stage. In the semifinals they would face Javanon 94 (KY). After conceding the first goal in the 46th minute, Grand Rapids Crew Jrs scored two in reply, the last coming in the 90th minute of play, to win the match. In the regional final, the game came down to the wire again as they needed overtime to beat Lou Fusz SC Gold (MO) 2-1 to move on to their fourth straight National Championships.
The unbeaten streak continued as they advanced to their first final at the National Championships, leaving no doubt with a 2-0-1 record. Grand Rapids Crew Jrs would face Penn Fusion Celtic (PA-E) again after the two drew 1-1 during preliminary play. After a Sean Conerty goal in the 72nd minute of play, Grand Rapids Crew Jrs could see the light at the end of the tunnel toward their first National Championship. As the final minutes begin to tick away, the Crew Jrs bench got out of their seats in anticipation of their first National championship. Penn Fusion would put a pause on their dream however, as they equalized in the 89th minute of play on a dramatic diving header to tie the game. Scoreless through overtime, the game would go to a shootout where it was Chase Rau, Golden Glove winner, would make the big save as the Crew Jrs were successful on all five of their attempts to finally claim that elusive National crown.
"Words can’t describe it," said 2011 Golden Ball winner Sean Conerty. "Proud is the best word to describe it. We worked so hard for it and finally achieving the thing that we’ve worked so hard together for all our lives was the best feeling I could ever imagine."
This year the Grand Rapids Crew Jrs come into the National Championships with a new head coach and a new dream; looking to repeat and defend their title.
"This year the boys played with a confidence and maturity," said Lewis Robinson, Head Coach of the Grand Rapids Crew Jrs. "The win last year took a huge weight off their shoulders. They now train like National Champions. We’re going out and playing to win the National Championship but also to defend it."
This year Grand Rapids Crew Juniors once again won the Michigan State Cup to advance to Regionals. After advancing through the group stage of the Region II Championships, Crew Jrs hit their first real test. In the semifinal game against longtime nemesis Waza FC 94 Black (MI), Crew Jrs let in an equalizing goal that would send the game to overtime tied at 2-2. In the dying moments of the game, in the 120th minute, Luke Bestrom scored to send Crew Jrs back to the Region II Championship. A victory in the final would earn them a trip back to the National Championship for a fifth straight time. This time, Crew Jrs are here as the team to beat.
"This will be the last chance we have to play together," said Conerty. "My team is like my family, so as a last hoorah it would be awesome to be able to defend our title and win another National Championship. It would just top everything off. "