By Steve Gunn
A league championship.
After two years of playing an independent schedule against teams from different leagues throughout the Midwest, the Risers joined the Premier League of America this summer.
They started out slow in the league race, with a 1-1-1 record after three games, and it seemed like it might take a year or two to adjust to the new level of competition.
But suddenly the Risers got hot, winning four league games in a row, and find themselves battling for a PLA playoff berth, and perhaps a division championship, with two weeks to go in the regular season.
The Risers are currently 5-2-1 in the league, good for second place in the Eastern Division. They have 16 points in the standings (three points for a win, one for a tie), and are only two points behind first-place RWB Adria, a Chicago-based team.
As it turns out, the Risers will host RWB Adria on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Muskegon Catholic Central, in a battle for first place.
That game, and the home game a week later against third-place Toledo FC, will determine whether the Risers will get a chance to play for the PLA championship later this month.
The top two teams in the East and West divisions will advance to the championship tournament on July 29-30 in Milwaukee.
“I would say we have exceeded expectations up to this point, but with only two games left, I would be extremely disappointed if we lost both of them,” said Risers Coach Ben Ritsema.
“I really don’t want to finish third in the division and be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. At the beginning of the season I probably would have said that we would take third place, but now we’re in a position to maybe win our division and go to the playoffs. I would really be bummed if we didn’t accomplish at least one of those two.”
While the Risers trail RWB Adria in the standings, they will go into Saturday’s showdown game with a level of confidence, after beating Adria on the road in the first game of the season.
“There’s more pressure for sure,” Ritsema said about battling for a league title late in the season. “But with more pressure comes more fun. When you win in this league you’re on top of the world. When you lose, like we did last week, you hit rock bottom for a day or two. You know the games are all so meaningful, with only 10 league games on the schedule.
“We’re extremely excited. We’re excited to have our fans come and watch a game that is really meaningful. If I’m a fan, that’s the game I want to go to. We’re hoping our home field and our home crowd will really make a difference for us.”
Ritsema said he wasn’t surprised that the Risers got off to a slow start this season, since all the early games were on the road, and many of the players on the roster were new.
While the Risers have several core players remaining from previous summer teams, as well as their 2017 indoor league team, they also recruited a lot of new, higher-skilled players for the summer season.
“A lot of it was being a first-year team in a league at this level,” he said. “And a lot of our newer players, who are at a little higher level than (a lot of the players from) last year, were new to me, and I was new to them. We had to work out some kinks. It all takes time.”
The leading scorer for the Risers so far this season is newcomer Michael Mayberry, who has four goals. Junior Kazeem has three while team captain Stuart Collins and Miguel Flores (Muskegon High School, Muskegon Community College) have two apiece.
Mayberry, Collins and Elvis Barclay were recently named to the league’s midseason All-Star team.
The Risers have been tough to score on, largely due to the work of first-year goalkeeper Carter Selvius, a Bryon Center graduate who also plays at Cedarville University in Ohio.
“He’s been great,” Ritsema said. “He’s tall and athletic, and makes some saves I don’t think he can get to. His potential is huge. If he can fine-tune his positioning and ball distribution, I would say he has the potential to go a long way.”
The Risers will have an extra spark in the lineup for Saturday’s big game. TJ Ifaturoti, a native of Nigeria and one of the team’s leading scorers during the indoor winter season, has returned to the club and will be in uniform this weekend.