By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Brand new teams are expected to pay their dues by losing a lot a games for at least a few years.
But someone forgot to send that memo to the Muskegon Community College men’s soccer program.
The Jayhawks have existed as a varsity program since 2011, and they’ve never experienced a losing season.
In 2011 they were 11-8-1 overall, 4-3-1 in league play and finished in second place in the Michigan Community College Athletic Association. In 2012 they were 11-8-1 overall, 2-4 in the league and finished third.
Last year they caught everyone by surprise, going 13-7 overall, 6-2 in the league and tying for the conference championship with Ancilla College (Indiana).
So how did the Jayhawks become so good so soon?
By convincing talented local high school players to commit to MCC, despite the overall lack of scholarship money available for athletes at the school, according to head coach Ben Ritsema.
“When you start with a really young team, like we did the first year, the thinking is ‘let’s have a team and try to be competitive,” said Ritsema, whose team kicks off its 2014 season Saturday with a game at Davenport College. “I didn’t expect to win 12 or 13 games and finish second in the conference.
“I knew there was good local talent in the high schools around here. It was just a matter of convincing that young talent to take a chance at MCC, instead of going to other schools.
“More than anything, I just think we have been a very hard working team that doesn’t like to lose, and if the players are willing to work hard, we can mold them into a good team.”
The Jayhawks had a chance to win the outright championship last season. They had a one game lead in the standings coming into their last regular season contest. All they had to do was beat or tie Ancilla to clinch the title for themselves.
But they dropped a heartbreaking 1-0 decision, forcing MCC to share top honors.
Both teams had reason to be proud, because they managed to wrestle the league title away from powerhouse Schoolcraft College, which had won seven straight championships.
“It was really exciting,” Ritsema said. “To get that in our third year was great. It was a testament to the hard work of the coaching staff and players.”
Of course the 2013 season is over, and the Jayhawks are ready to embark on their most uncertain campaign since the program began in 2011.
The open with a road game against the Davenport College junior varsity on Saturday, then host Morton College, a Chicago-area power, on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Grand Haven High School.
Ritsema had 17 freshman on last year’s title team, so there was reason to believe a lot of them would return and form another very strong squad.
But only seven of those players came back, and three are already out for the season with various types of offseason injuries. One had ankle surgery, while two others suffered ACL tears.
Meanwhile a top freshman recruit, forward Zach Gilson from Fruitport, was also lost for the season with an ACL tear.
That leaves Ritsema with four experienced players and a lot of freshman question marks.
Among those missing this season are top scorers Eric Hilt (6 goals, 2 assists) and Zach Sutton (7 goals, 4 assists). Both played two years at MCC and exhausted their eligibility.
“We definitely have an uphill battle this year because this is such a young roster and a lot of them have not played together,” Ritsema said. “We have to get on the same page. There are days we look like we’re on the same page, and there are others when you can tell we’re still struggling. We just don’t know each other well enough yet.”
The Jayhawks will count heavily on sophomore returnees Aaron Dault (defender), Jacob Kring (midfield), Keith Kuharavics (midfield) and Jacob Berens (goalkeeper).
But most of the returnees are defensive-type players, which means Ritsema will have to count on brand new freshmen for most of the team’s scoring punch.
Showing some promise in the early going are freshmen forward Chaise Schuiteman from Western Michigan Christian, midfielder Brandon Edwards from Orchard View and forward Andrew Jennings from Whitehall.
Two freshman goalkeepers, Eli Bowers of Mona Shores and Thomas Swiatek of Reeths-Puffer, are in the mix for playing time along with Berens. Ritsema said he will probably use all three keepers during the non-league schedule, then decide on a starter when conference games begin.
Another freshman, defender Cody Loss from Reeths-Puffer, was elected as a team captain. The other two captains are Dault and Berens.
“I have high expectations,” Ritsema said. “I want to win every game. This year’s team is really, really young. We are going to have to work for it.”
The rest of the roster is comprised of freshmen Alex Rop (WM Christian), Carlos Olmeda (Holland), Jose Covarrubias (West Ottawa), Richard Saldana (Holland), Jesus Corona (Holland), Ben Kramer (Fruitport), Jabob Rohlman (Mona Shores), Alex Fagan (Grand Haven), Charlie Wick (Holland), Edgar Alvarez (Holland), John Waller (WM Christian), Amie Tuyishime (East Kentwood), Emmitt Mikkelson (Whitehall) and Adrian Briseno (Muskegon).