Berkley girls soccer huddles up  during a matchup against Royal Oak Shrine Catholic April 27 at Shrine Catholic High School.

Berkley girls soccer huddles up during a matchup against Royal Oak Shrine Catholic April 27 at Shrine Catholic High School.

Photo by Liz Carnegie

No longer cubs, Bears clawing at OAA White with league promotion dreams in sight

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Woodward Talk | Published May 7, 2024

 Berkley junior Danielle Nodler controls the ball.

Berkley junior Danielle Nodler controls the ball.

Photo by Liz Carnegie


BERKLEY — Berkley Bears girls soccer is all grown up and reclaiming its territory in Oakland Activities Association soccer.

Prior to 2022, the OAA had the Bears in hibernation for years toward the bottom half of the league with a title never really within its reach.

Once head coach Zach Hobson came into the fold in 2022 with a slew of talented underclassmen to kick-start the new-look program, progress immediately showed.

With back-to-back winning seasons, including a 12-win season last year, and 18 returning players, Berkley is becoming a consistent threat day in and day out because of one key factor, according to Hobson.

“The No. 1 thing I would say is culture,” Hobson said. “Now, I will say culture is kind of a buzzword that gets thrown around in sports organizations and businesses. When I came into the fold very late into the preseason in 2022, the program was, in my view, a shell of what a successful program should look like, and the program was coming off of a year in which they won three or four games, and those three or four wins were against opponents we shouldn’t have been on the same field as. From a coaching point of view, it was kind of a clean slate to start with.”

Berkley showed some vulnerability early this season with two ties against St. Clair Shores Lakeview and Lake Orion in their first three matchups, but some adjustments needed to be made for a team that graduated an array of talent up the middle.

Chemistry and trust have been focal points of the Bears’ culture, and part of filling a void is trusting teammates to help ease the transition for the newcomers.

For Berkley, relying on one another has hardly been an issue this season, especially on the offensive attack.

Currently averaging three goals per game, the Bears score sheet seems to have a different name on it every game.

Senior captain Maeve Nolan, a Kalamazoo College commit, headlines the scoring department alongside junior Madi Bonsall, junior Nora Sleeman, junior Hailey Kirkwood, junior captain Jessie Burns, senior captain Addison Hambright, junior Delaney Reed and junior Avery Weingarden.

“For us, we have so many dynamic, attacking midfielders,” Hobson said. “We really don’t have an out-and-out center forward, so what we look to do with that deep group of attacking midfielders is have them rotating into different positions all across the attack and make ourselves unpredictable going forward. It’s almost like positionless soccer. We put a structure behind our attack so that players have the freedom to be creative, expressive and combine with each other.”

Sometimes with so many playmakers, certain players have to adjust to different roles in order to help the team mold properly.

For junior Alana Horwitz, Hobson called upon her to take on a new challenge this season. More of an offensive specialist, Horwitz is a dynamic player who can make her presence felt where she’s at.

“She, from day one, has been the most technically gifted player in the program as far as what she can do with the ball at her feet,” Hobson said. “I’ve seen very few players that have that quality on the ball. At the end of this past year, I challenged her and told her how she can compete off the ball and win duals. We needed to see a significant uptick there and she was probably going to be playing deeper into midfield than she was accustomed to because she is more of an attacking midfielder.”

To counter an impressive front line, the Bears back line continues to show its teeth with senior captain and goalkeeper Madeline Welsh, an Albion College commit, holding five clean sheets and averaging just under a goal allowed per game. Sophomore Bryn Wightman, sophomore Nicole Charlton, and senior Ava Sillars, a four-year varsity player, are impact players on the Berkley back line as well.

Welsh, a three-year starter for Berkley, has shined throughout her high school career in net, and Hobson said her growth throughout the years has been immeasurable.

“She’s performing at an all-state level for us right now,” Hobson said. “She’s a very good goalkeeper. We kind of threw her into the deep end two years ago when she was a sophomore. She had never played varsity soccer and was playing on the B-team of a local club, and just in that calendar year became a varsity starter and is now playing on a regional circuit on the club side and is committed to play at the next level. She’s come a long way.”

Now 9-1-4 on the season, the Bears suffered their first loss 10 games into the season against OAA White rival Clarkston, who currently sits at the top of the league.

Berkley is currently third in the league behind Clarkston and Birmingham Groves, whom Berkley will play on May 7.

The OAA is recognized as one of the more talented soccer leagues in the state, and Hobson said a league promotion to the OAA-Red, the top league, is a primary goal for his squad.

“The OAA-Red is the pinnacle of soccer in the state of Michigan, and we want to compete at that level,” Hobson said. “In order to get out of our district, we need to know how to compete against programs at that level. The reality is, in our area, unless we get dragged somewhere else one year, we’re pretty much going to have to face a gauntlet of Troy, Troy Athens, and last year it was Bloomfield Hills, in order to get out of the districts. It’s league first, district second.”

A league title, which Berkley has never won, isn’t a necessity to move up the ranks, but an impressive showing through the district gauntlet Berkley intends to face would be a nice feather in the cap for a league promotion.

Berkley last won a district championship in 2019 but will have to battle through OAA White and Red competition in order to bring another one home.

The program has emerged as a year-to-year contender, and don’t expect anything to change if the Bears make the jump up.

“Our program has come a long way in the past few years,” Hobson said. “Last year, we fell short in some of the most crucial moments of the season. Primarily, we attribute that to a squad that was really good, but nobody that had really played truly meaningful games at this level. This year, returning so much from last year’s team, we have a lot of players I think mentally are more aware of the headspace they need to be going into every game, whether it’s the crucial ones or the ones that we can potentially make comfortable for ourselves. In addition to the growth of the product on the field, I think we’re more mentally equipped for the challenges we face and the ones that lie ahead.”