The growing soccer community in West Michigan had an opportunity earlier this year to recognize the best of the area in the first annual West Michigan Soccer Awards night.
The evening of March 2nd honored players, coaches, supporters, and administrators alike as Grand Rapids Football Club played host, recognizing the best in the area in a night of celebration. While the night was about the award winners, it also highlighted well how the game has grown not only in Grand Rapids, but in the rest of West Michigan as well.
“Our goal was to recognize people that are doing great things in West Michigan soccer,” said Grand Rapids FC owner and founder, Matt Roberts. “I think we’ve done that tonight.”
The night recognized thirteen different individuals from all aspects of the game; including administrators, supporters, referees, coaches, and—of course—players. It began with youth coaches, which George Moni of Midwest United and Lizzie Paul-Hornack of SCOR won for Boys and Girls Coaches of the Year respectively. Moni, former head coach at GRFC, and Lizzie Paul-Hornack, a current player for the women’s side at GRFC, both have strong connections to the hosting club.
For the High School side, both coaches and players were recognized, with John Conlon of East Kentwood and Kelly Conlon of Byron Center winning Boys and Girls High School Coaches of the Year. Tommy Visser of Grand Rapids Christian and Regan Coxon of Lowell won Players of the Year for Boys and Girls respectively, showcasing and honoring just what there is to offer for high school soccer in West Michigan.
GRFC Men’s head coach Lewis Robinson was awarded for his work with Aquinas College’s women’s team by picking up the Women’s College Coach of the Year, while Ryan Souders of Calvin College was the winner on the men’s side.
Bethany Balcer could not pick up her award for Women’s College Player of the Year as she was occupied in Seattle working with the Seattle Reign. Her work with the GRFC women’s team earned her a chance to prove herself elsewhere and represent West Michigan in Seattle. Giuseppe Barone, the former GRFC midfielder and current Michigan State student athlete picked up the Men’s College Player of the Year award.
The night was not just for coaches and players, however. The final three awards were dealt to Referee of the Year, Administrator of the Year, and Supporter of the Year. Nick Balcer won the first of those thanks to his wonderful performances at the whistle throughout the past season and with the USSF Development Academy representing West Michigan well. Elissa Vire of CATS FC picked up the award for administrator of the year. Carrie Gillette of the Grand Army, the Grand Rapids FC supporter group, won supporter of the year.
Grand Rapids FC owner Matt Roberts included his own announcements in between awards for the upcoming seasons for both the men’s and women’s teams. Roberts announced the plans to start a Grand Rapids FC Foundation, something that is still in the works, but should be seen within the coming months.
“We’re not ready to launch everything yet,” Roberts said. “Our goal with the foundation is obviously gonna be to help kids, help coaches, help referees develop. We also want to help inner-city kids have an opportunity to play at a higher level. We’re gonna roll it out as we go throughout the season.”
Roberts also announced free entry to youth soccer players to Grand Rapids FC women’s games. This means every youth player aged fourteen or under will be able to enter and watch the games for free.
“We want to help kids get to our games and make it financially viable,” Roberts announced. “We wanted to make sure they have a chance to come to all of the games and young girls have a chance to aspire to be a Lizzie Paul.”
Despite all of the awards and celebration, the night had a recurring theme of sadness due to the recent passing of Roger Garner. Garner was an important figure in West Michigan soccer whether it was for the local clubs, developing youth, or just having an overall passion for the game. Grand Rapids FC honored him with a new award category called the Rog Garner Dedication Award.
“We wanted to recognize Rog,” Roberts said before presenting the award. “When we started the GRFC women’s team, the first question was ‘what can I do? how can I help?’”
The award was given to Nancy Garner and the entire Garner family, as an appreciation for everything that the family did for West Michigan soccer.
“I would like to thank everybody in the soccer community,” Nancy Garner said. “He truly loved it. He truly loved everybody. The soccer community gave us so much support.”
The soccer community of West Michigan received tremendous support from Garner, and that support was recognized and reciprocated to his family and him during and after his passing. His legacy was honored with an award that will continue on in the coming annual West Michigan Soccer Awards nights.
“He was a special, special person,” Roberts said. “You would see him every night out training kids every night at any field.”
The night showcased everything that West Michigan soccer is becoming, and what it could become in the near future. This was the first of an annual celebration that allows the community to honor everything that makes it a soccer community, from youth soccer and up. West Michigan is eagerly waiting for the start of the NPSL season where Grand Rapids Football Club kick off their season on May 4th against Livonia City FC.