By Jason Goorman

The Muskegon Risers’ dream of securing a berth into the 2022 MASL2 championship game took a halt against the Cleveland Crunch on Friday.

The Risers had a fairy-tale finish set up for them at Mercy Health Arena, but fell on a hard 6-5 loss to the Crunch in true heart-breaking fashion.

Aldony Mendez chases down a bouncing ball for Muskegon. Photo/Michael Banka

Muskegon had clutched a 5-3 lead with just over nine minutes left in the game when Brandon Edwards turned a huge disadvantage into the game’s most exciting play.

Edwards stole a Cleveland back-pass to its goalkeeper after breaking out of the penalty box and tallied a short-handed goal for a two-goal lead.

“It was right at the end of my blue card, and I was just coming on the field and literally the goalie, I don’t think saw me coming,” said Edwards about his fast heads-up play. “He nonchalantly was messing with the ball and I was out there in a heartbeat and the ball took a bad bounce on him and I took advantage of it and I just ran it in.”

The Risers had fallen into a deep, 5-on-3 penalty kill after getting a pair of incidental contact penalties barely a minute apart. Edwards was flagged for the first infraction and Francesco Calabrese followed into the penalty box.  

“Man, I honestly thought that was the last goal of the game and we were going to settle it and end it,” said Edwards. “But you know, they are a great team, number one in the conference and they are the defending champs for a reason.”

The electric play by the 2019 Muskegon Orchard View grad was short-lived. Cleveland tallied a goal less than 30 seconds later and tied the score with seven minutes left in the game.

Robert Williamson goes for the ball in front of goalie Anton Dersham. Photo/Michael Banka

The Crunch’s Ryan Minick scored the game-winning goal with three and a half minutes left to play. Cleveland was able to withstand the Risers’ last efforts with a grip-tight defense that let through only a few shots on goal.

Muskegon faced near insurmountable odds coming into the contest.

The Risers faced a Cleveland team that averaged 12 goals a game this season. Plus Muskegon was missing key leadership with goalie Akani Miyambu out with a sprained ankle and Coach Ben Ritsema away with family obligations.

Ritsema called on Michael Vollmer to lead the team from the bench.

“Ben came to me and said you’re the guy, the best choice, do you want it,” said Vollmer about filling the coaching position for Ritsema. “So I thought whatever is best for the team.”

Vollmer is also the backup goaltender to Miyambu which meant Muskegon needed another keeper.

Enter Anton Dersham, Muskegon’s former goalkeeper from its 2021 season. Dersham stepped in and filled the starting position in goal.

The familiar setting wasn’t so familiar early on as Muskegon fell behind 2-0 in the first two minutes of the game. The game looked like it might turn ugly as the Crunched scored in the first nine seconds and added another tally, 57 seconds later.

“The first minute of the game, and you’re down and it is about to go,” said Vollmer regarding his team’s early troubles. “That’s the thought process when you’re down, you’re done, but mentally you’re not and you just chip away, chip away.”

Michael Schmitt heads the ball for the Risers. Photo/Michael Banka

Muskegon started chipping away at its early problems with a goal from Robert Williamson on a pass from Adam Knight off an indirect kick after a Cleveland infraction.

The Risers closed out the first quarter down, 2-1 and then trailed 3-1 with nine minutes left to play in the second quarter.  

Alexis Mendez cut Muskegon’s deficit to 3-2, on a hustle play that was kept alive by TJ Ifaturoti who assisted on the goal. Colin O’Keefe crossed a pass to an alone James Dutcher who hammered home a goal to tie the score, 3-3.

Capping off the first-half comeback was Aldony Mendez who controlled a steal along the boards, and turned it into an exciting 4-3 lead just before halftime.

“It was leadership, it was keeping the ball and getting them to defend us,” said Vollmer regarding his team’s incredible comeback. “How do we keep possession. It was about getting good traction and defending.”

Both teams were held scoreless in the third quarter, Muskegon had several opportunities from Aldony Mendez and a shot that hit the post by Williamson.

While the fairy tale finish didn’t happen for Muskegon, the appearance in the semifinals was bittersweet being so close to reaching the finals.

“One win in the quarterfinals wasn’t going to do it for us,” said longtime Risers defenseman Michael Schmitt. “We wanted it all. That was our mentality. We could see the energy out there was a championship effort but we just fell short.”

Colin O’Keefe pumps up Risers fans after a Muskegon goal. Photo/Michael Banka

TJ Ifaturoti tries to get past the Cleveland goalkeeper. Photo/Michael Banka