North and South boys soccer teams square off in division showdown
Prior to accepting the position as Grosse Pointe North’s soccer coach, Skipper Mukhtar, Jr. wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the rivalry that exists between North and South.
This is Mukhtar’s first year at the helm, and it hasn’t taken him long to figure out that the North-South rivalry is a pretty big deal in the Grosse Pointes. He had heard about what the rivalry entails from seniors on the squad, and when the two teams met earlier this season, a 1-0 game won by South, Mukhtar had an opportunity to experience it firsthand.
“I’ve learned that it means a lot to our kids, and it’s comparable to Ohio State-Michigan,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. I fell in love with the first game — just the rivalry. It’s something I’m looking forward to for the next many years that I’ll be at North.”
From a coaching perspective, South coach Stefan Harris believes the North-South rivalry presents certain challenges.
“It’s a game the players enjoy, but as a coach, I typically don’t enjoy too much because you kind of just throw your strategies out the window,” he said. “It’s kind of just a slug fest. It’s low scoring (and) close, always. No matter what. It’s fun. It’s great for Grosse Pointe. It’s great for the kids because soccer’s becoming more popular now amongst both schools.”
As is the case with the majority of high school rivalries, the one between North and South is born out of proximity. Although coaches may typically prefer for players to consider every game on the schedule as equally important, Mukhtar understands that there is just something different about intra-city match-up.
“It always means a lot, because these kids grew up just across the road,” he said. “They played on the same travel teams. They’ve played baseball with them. It means a lot because there are pretty much bragging rights for the whole year.”
While Harris understands that the rivalry is a big one, he would also like to make sure his players keep their emotions in check.
“It’s hard to calm them down because they know this is a team we share a city with, and they just want to go out there and play 100 mph all the time,” he said. “That causes problems for us sometimes.”
In support of the Wounded Warrior Project, both teams will be wearing camouflage jerseys with the names of wounded soldiers on the back. Donations to the non-profit organization will be taken at the gate, and Mukhtar believes the support that will be shown for the cause will only help to add to the excitement.
“It’s crazy,” Mukhtar said of the atmosphere surrounding the North-South rivalry games. “The stands are packed — lot of people there. The game’s going to mean a little extra for a lot of people. We’re trying to get a lot of people out there. We have kids on our team, like Joey Garvin, whose dad was in the military. Tyler Bensen’s grandpa was in the military. So this game means a lot to people like that.”
Harris also believes that playing in support of the Wounded Warrior Project will add a unique twist to the game.
“It’s already big,” Harris said. “We’re trying to do what we can to get it even bigger. We’re working on making camouflage shirts to sell to fans. We’re working on getting a flyover. We’re trying to get as much coverage as we can to make it a really (good) atmosphere.”
At press time, South was 6-1-2 in the Macomb Area Conference White Division (8-4-3 overall) and fighting for the top spot in the league. With a squad Mukhtar said is young and developing, North was 1-7 MAC White, 1-11-1 overall.
Though first place may not be on the line this time around, Mukhtar believes his team will have an opportunity to play a fun role come Oct. 8.
“It would mean a lot,” he said of winning the divisional game. “It means a lot more to them. They’re competing for first place, so for us to be able to spoil it would be a little nice.”
Harris is well aware that this game could have an impact on South’s chase for a league title.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “Every game we play for the rest of the season’s huge. We’ve, obviously, had a better year than they have. They’re rebuilding, and they’re going to be back. They have a good coach. Whenever we play them, we always get their best.”