EAST KENTWOOD — It’s never easy replacing a legend.
However, when you’ve played for that legend, still regularly talk to that legend and teach at the same school as that legend it tends to make the transition just a little bit easier.
And his program clearly hasn’t missed a beat.
Zach Jonker took over the Petoskey High School boys’ varsity coaching position following the 2009 season — a season in which Scott Batchelor guided the Northmen to a second straight Division II title game.
That season, the Northmen were still flying high coming off a Division II state championship the year before and advanced to the title game against Hudsonville Unity Christian at East Kentwood’s Crestwood Middle School, the same site and opponent as Saturday’s Division II state final.
Petoskey fell to the Crusaders, 2-0.
What I remember most about that season was how ‘Batch’ had his team believing they could repeat as champions, yet when they fell just short of their goal it was all class.
After all, Batch was and still is all class.
“They were a good team,” Batchelor said of Unity Christian moments after coaching the final game of his stellar 27-year career. “When you get beat in the tournament, you don’t feel bad when you get beat by the better team and they were just a better team than us.”
Well history often has a way of repeating itself and it did Saturday on a cool, yet sunny afternoon just outside of Grand Rapids.
Hudsonville Unity Christian earned a third Division II state title since 2007, and did so with an impressive all-around team performance featuring ultra-fast and dangerous forwards, a backline that thwarted almost all of Petoskey’s build-ups and with a championship save from goalkeeper Nick Woldyk on an Adam Bayer chance which kept the game a 1-0 before the Crusaders went on to score two more goals to win 3-0.
Sure, the loss concluded an amazing, almost improbable journey for a Petoskey team that at one point this season was 6-7-1, but the way Jonker and his team handled the loss and put perspective on this season was just like Batch.
It was all class.
“I really feel for our seniors,” Jonker said. “I know they’re bummed out, but they shouldn’t be. They should be walking with their heads held high. They lost to a great team and the only reason we were in this position was because of those seniors and the leadership they’ve provided since day one.”
Jonker’s leadership from the sideline spearheaded a Northmen team which dropped five of its first seven games, to a 14-2-1 finish in their final 17 games.
“Those seniors believed and they believed all year they could get us here and they did,” Jonker said. “They have nothing to be disappointed about. I think we exceeded everybody’s expectations. Getting here obviously it would’ve been sweet to have the other trophy, but the reality was they (Unity Christian) were the better team today.”
Jonker may be just in his third year as coach of both the Petoskey boys and girls program, but his time and energy involved in the game likely exceeds decades.
After transferring to Petoskey from Cheboygan in high school, Jonker played for Batchelor and graduated in 1995 before going on to earn four letters at Hope College.
An AP Economics and World History teach at Petoskey High School, Jonker also serves as president of the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association, carries a US Youth Soccer National Youth License and NSCAA Premier License and is a co-founder of Bounce Athletics, a company that makes custom soccer balls and training vests.
It’s pretty safe to say his life is soccer.
“I’m pretty lucky that I have a very understanding wife who allows me to do this,” Jonker told me two years ago.
I know he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, and I know his knowledge of the game, his poise, his demeanor, his passion and his class is something Batch is also very proud of.
“Unity dominated us physically and they were just very opportunistic,” Jonker said. “They are a very deserving champion. I hope people can appreciate what this group of kids did. Against teams like East Lansing, Cranbrook and Unity, our competitive disadvantages are too numerous to list.
“We essentially negated almost all of those disadvantages during the past two weeks.”
More than anything, Jonker — with the help of his nine seniors — had his team believing.
That belief carried a team that you can almost guarantee nobody outside (or even inside) of the Petoskey zip code ever would’ve thought would be playing for a Division II state title.
“Our guys were incredible representatives of our community,” Jonker said. “They are devastated by the loss, and that attitude is exactly why we ended up playing for a state championship.”
In a combined 43 seasons over 31 years between the boys and girls programs, Jonker’s former high school coach Batchelor won 609 games, lost 240, and tied 83. Batchelor captured 31 district championships, seven regionals and made it to four state championships games, winning two.
Yes, Batch’s career with the Northmen was a legacy.
While Jonker has a while to go to match Batch, you can bet he’ll give it just as solid as an effort.
His legacy is just beginning.
“He believes in what he does and he’s there every day at practice, probably more excited about it than we are sometimes,” Petoskey senior Louis Lamberti said. “Even last week when it was cold and snowing out, he was ready to go. He always brings good energy to the team and gives us a lot of confidence.”
It was that confidence that ultimately carried the Northmen through an unforgettable journey this fall.
“We have had lots of teams that may have had more talent top to bottom, but I’m not sure we have ever had a group be so united and that is the best legacy any team can leave.”
Follow Steve Foley on Twitter @SteveFoley8