During high school, Rachel Phillpotts honed her soccer talent on the turf at refurbished Atwood Stadium. There, the Linden native was part of powerful Powers Catholic teams and concluded her prep career in unforgettable fashion, playing an integral role on the Chargers’ dominant 2017 team which captured a Division 3 state championship and finished 26-1-2.
After being named to the All-State Dream Team, Phillpotts took those talents to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, helping the Panthers to four Horizon League titles and four NCAA Tournament berths. Along the way, she was named the Horizon League’s Defensive Player of the Year and to the all-conference first team three times. Phillpotts spent most summers back in Michigan, further sharpening her skills with pre-professional teams like Lansing United and, for the past two years, Detroit City FC.
This spring, Phillpotts returns to the scene of her high school triumphs, joining Flint City AFC for its second season and first under a new coaching staff led by Michele Krzisnik. The allure of playing at Atwood again in front of family, friends and the club’s ardent supporters was too strong for Phillpotts to resist.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to play competitive soccer closer to home,” says Phillpotts, one of the team’s five Flint-area players. “Atwood was my home in high school and it’ll be fun to play back on the same turf again. I am also looking forward to playing with competitive, high-level athletes to create a winning environment.”
High-level talent, indeed.
Of the 30 players on this season’s roster, 12 have earned some type of college all-conference honor and all but one has played, is playing or will play at the NCAA Division 1 level, meaning Flint City AFC should have little trouble bettering last season’s 2-9-1 USL W League record.
Phillpotts started 72 of 82 games at UW-Milwaukee, finishing with 15 goals, including five game-winners, and 12 assists. She was also part of an unforgiving defense which allowed a miniscule 0.48 goals per game.
Playing in front of hometown fans is not the only thing Phillpotts is looking forward to. She is elated to be playing with cousin Grace Phillpotts at Atwood for the first time after both spent the past two seasons with Detroit City FC.
“Playing with Grace is always an exciting opportunity and we both share a passion for the game and competing with family on the same team is something special,” Rachel says.
Grace, a Fenton native, recently transferred to Kentucky after three seasons at DePaul University where the defender was named to the All-Big East Freshman team in 2020. Not only will she continue to be Rachel’s teammate, she is also reuniting with former teammates from the elite, Livonia-based Michigan Hawks club she played for while in high school. Krzisnik has coached Hawks teams for more than 25 years, including two national finalist squads, and serves as the organization’s director of scouting.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with and for my old teammates and coaches and continuing to play with Rachel in front of our family and friends,” Grace says. “I know this program has a lot to offer and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”
Familiarity on several levels is bound to be a major strength for this season’s squad.
In addition to the Phillpotts cousins, there are two sister duos – Fenton’s Madi and Landis Canada and Celia and Justina Gaynor – who are also Michigan State teammates. There are two other pairs of current college teammates, including former Grand Blanc All-Stater Jenna Blackburn and Madi Canada (Western Michigan) and Regan Dancer and Ella Offer (Xavier).
Last year, Flint City AFC had a collection of good players, but this year we’ll be more of a team.”
Coach Michelle Krzisnik
The most common thread is that all but five players have been members of the Hawks and all 25 have been coached by Krzisnik or new Flint City AFC associate head coaches Doug Landefeld and Adil Salmoni.
Landefeld, a former Michigan State captain who has been with the Hawks for nearly 30 years, has coached three of its teams to national titles and now serves as executive director. Salmoni joined the Hawks about 15 years ago and is technical director. He has also coached United States U16 and U18 national teams.
The trio, who will continue in their Hawks roles, began their duties in January.
“It’s been mostly about gathering all the players and assembling our roster since we started,” says Krzisnik, a second-team All-Big Ten performer and captain at the University of Michigan who also helped Livonia Stevenson to the 1990 Class A state title. “We have good numbers and good talent and many players who are familiar with each other because our Hawks club is like family. Still, many are coming from different college programs, so we’ll see how quickly they come together and fit with each other.”
Being able to work with players beyond the youth level, including so many they previously coached, was a major reason the three agreed to lead Flint
“We really wanted to work with players who came from the top end of our program and other college players to help them continue their development,” Landefeld says. “We are excited about helping (team president) Costa Papista and (co-owner) Eddie Hudson continue moving the organization forward from the ground floor to the pinnacle of success.”
In all, 13 players who spent at least one game with Flint City AFC last season return, including Blackburn, who had three goals and an assist in three games. She has played in 44 games the past three seasons, starting 34, with 11 goals, three game-winners and six assists.
“Playing with Flint City AFC last year and representing Flint was such a blast,” she says. “The environment the fans created was great. Our experience from playing in the USL W last year and having so many players back will help us be very successful.”
Madi Canada, a midfielder, made the MAC All-Freshman team last season, starting 17 of 19 games and playing an average of 79 minutes. Landis, a Fenton High School junior and midfielder, plays for the Hawks and was named to the Elite Clubs National League’s Midwest Conference U-16 first team last season. She has committed to Missouri.
Other returning college all-conference players are forwards Regan Dancer, Abby Werthman (Western Michigan) and Sammi Woods (Michigan), midfielder Justina Gaynor and goalkeeper Kayla Shuk (Aquinas College).
Gaynor made first-team All-Big Ten, the Big Ten All-Tournament team and all-region second team last fall as the Spartans finished 17-3-3, captured a Big Ten title and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. She started all 23 games, finishing with four goals and two assists and contributing to a defense that allowed a mere 0.65 goals per game.
Shuk played the most minutes in goal (452 in five games) for Flint City AFC last season as she prepared for her freshman season at NAIA Aquinas. She was named second-team All-Wolverines Hoosier Conference.
Other returnees are midfielders Jaden Frigerio (Bowling Green), Celia Gaynor, Olivia Rush (Indiana) and Remini Tillotson (TCU) and forwards Maya Carter (Virginia) and Olivia Thomas, a high school senior and first-team U17 ECNL Midwest pick who is committed to North Carolina.
Flint City AFC’s other college all-conference picks are University of Miami graduate Shannon Browning (defender), Ball State’s Delaney Caldwell (forward) and Wisconsin’s Aidan McConnell (defender).
Browning, the most senior member of the team at 28, will play and coach. The All-Athletic Coast Conference pick was a three-year team captain at Miami, finishing with a goal and eight assists. She then played overseas before joining Detroit City FC.
McConnell has started all 40 games the past two seasons at Wisconsin and made the Big Ten Tournament team last year. During a storied career with the Hawks, she was a United Soccer Coaches All-American. She will likely be paired with future Wisconsin teammate Hailey Baumann at center back. Baumann is a high school senior and first-team U17 ECNL Midwest pick.
Caldwell was MAC Freshman of the Year last season.
Other Division 1 players are forward Ava Akeel (Indiana), midfielders Mac Midgley (Tennessee) and Gabby Mueller (Michigan State) and goalie Anna Pierce (Butler). Current high school players who have committed to colleges are defender Sophia Piotrowski (Michigan State), forward Bella Gaetino (North Carolina), goalkeeper Peighton Northrup (Ohio State) and defender Reese Slater (Xavier).
Defender Mya Brandon, a high school sophomore, is the youngest player and an ECNL U15 All-American.
“Last year, Flint City AFC had a collection of good players, but this year we’ll be more of a team,” says Krzisnik. “We should be able to tell fairly quickly where all the players are going to fit in and see who shows up healthy and ready to go.”
Flint City AFC begins the season May 6 at AFC Ann Arbor. Their home opener is May 20 against Detroit City FC.
“The quality of soccer the fans are going to see this summer will be fun,” Rachel Phillpotts said. “The coaching staff’s experience and the quality of players they attract are just a couple of our strengths along with sharing an eagerness to build a strong soccer community.”