One word, perhaps, best defines the 2021 Potter’s House Pumas boys soccer team: Pressure.
The elite squad helmed by head coach Mike Colago and assistant coach Chris Reinsma, has embraced pressure as part of their identity during their incredible postseason run in both terms of its application to their opponents and their own ability to overcome it. The Pumas overcame several pressure moments during the historic slog through some of the state’s most storied programs, falling behind a goal in overtime against West Michigan Christian, dropping 1-0 early against Calvin Christian and battling late into the game with things tied 0-0 against North Muskegon. At every turn, the Pumas answered the pressure situation with aplomb.
When the Pumas weren’t feeling the pressure, they were applying it with a tenacious backline, unrelenting midfield and precise strikers. Saturday was no different as they squared off with the Everest Collegiate Academy Mountaineers in Novi, MI.
The Pumas got things started with a series of shots from senior Jonathan Stout that painted every edge of the goal except the net and kept things scoreless in the early going. Everest responded with two shots on goal that very nearly put the Mountaineers up early. One shot in particular, came to rest and sat perilously just outside the net off a deflection by Puma goalie, Seth Hoeksema. The senior standout jumped on top to maintain things at a neutral 0-0.
If fans were watching with bated breath, Hoeksema fell back on instinct and experience. “I don’t even really remember what happened. I just remember (Everest) had a super hard shot on the ground right by my feet and managed to get something on it. (I) turned around and saw the ball slowly rolling over the red line and knew that I had to get it before it got to the yellow. Afterwards, I was almost in shock that I did that because that was one of the best double saves of my high school career.”
The series of saves continued the Puma defense’s stellar play and kept them in the hunt for the team’s third shutout in as many games and the moment was not lost on the senior standout goalie.
“I think (the saves) were absolutely massive. We’ve had experiences as a team of going down early in postseason games two years in a row to Calvin and I knew how hard of a hole that is to get out of, so I knew that I just had to do everything in my power to keep those out, not only for myself, but for my teammates.”
While the defense kept things tied up, the offense was continuing to apply constant pressure to the Everest defense. Stout managed to put the Pumas on the board from a center strike off his right foot that flew deep into the net and gave the squad the advantage midway through the first half.
“I had noticed pretty early that there was a bit of a gap between the midfield and the back line, so if I got past the guy that was on me I was looking to shoot before the back line could step up on me, and that’s exactly what happened on that play. I won the ball and started going at the back line and so I just shot it before the back line could step up on me. Once the ball went in I was just thinking, ‘wow we’re in the state finals right now, and we’re winning!’ Until the ball went in I still hadn’t grasped how close we really were to being state champions.”
The goal off Stout’s right foot may not have been, however. The Michigan State soccer commit has been a standout for years and earned a spot with Midwest United this year. However, he was barred from participating on both teams congruently and had to make a choice. “I thought I was going to be playing for Midwest United this fall but after having to choose one or the other mid-season, the investment that I had made with these boys and the time I had spent with them was what ultimately made me decide to play for Potters House instead of playing academy this fall.” The decision has paid off for the Pumas this year and the postseason was no exception.
If there was any sense that the Pumas would pull back and remain content to play out the remainder of the half and game with the lead, it was quickly put to rest. The Pumas continued their unrelenting pressure and, far from getting complacent, seemed excited by the proverbial blood in the water.
A loose ball seemed to be harmlessly rolling to the Everest defense when senior Jok Nhial tore towards it with a determination that seemed to catch the Everest back line by surprise. “I was thinking to myself, ‘If I keep applying pressure, eventually they’re going to break and there’s going to be openings for us to score.” Nhial put action to that belief and beat the defense to a ball that otherwise seemed like a fruitless attempt. Nhial got to the ball first and punched it ahead to Rukundo Masengesho who in turn, delivered it to the streaking Yosi Mukando who fired a shot through the pipes, just above the Everest goalie’s outstretch arms and put the Pumas up 2-0. “It felt great to have that goal be the outcome of me applying pressure to that back line,” Nhial said of the hustle play.
Mukando knew he’d have a shot on goal and handled the pressure moment like a veteran. “I could hear the sound of people screaming ‘hit the ball!'” He detailed his mindset in that moment, “It was a good pass from Rukundo and I was not too impatient to score a goal.”
The Pumas again remained unfettered by the seeming comfortable two goal advantage and while the early pressure was surmounted by the Pumas, their constant application on the other end began to overwhelm Everest.
Puma midfielder Masengesho finessed his way through layers of defenders and shot the ball, which ended up creating an own-goal situation by the Mountaineers. The Pumas closed out the half with the 3-0 lead and remained aggressive in the second half, but with their lines shifted back guarding the sizable advantage on the scoreboard.
Everest never put the Pumas in serious peril after the early shots on goal and Potter’s House sealed the victory 3-0 to earn the school’s first ever team state championship.
Hoeksema had high praise for his coaches and teammates on completing their third straight shutout and credited his continual improvement to the team’s overall efforts. “I think throughout this entire season I have been able to continuously get better, but most certainly the postseason helped. I think one of the main reasons for (my improvement) is coach Chris, he just always brought us to a new level. Another reason would have to be my back line. We’ve all been playing together for at least two years and I really just wanted to win for them. I just can’t be prouder of the entire team. It was just such a good run this postseason, especially from the backline and I think that was proven through our last three games being shutouts.”
Coach Colago remarked on the team’s championship and efforts this season. “Yesterday’s game was a culmination of full team buy-in and effort throughout the season. We had committed ourselves to open gyms, skill workouts, and summer training and scrimmages to get to this championship level. We had four pillars on the season: motivation, confidence, mental stability, and team cohesion. Each one of these was fulfilled. The four pillars were in and among the boys all season long through any trial and hard moment. They stuck together. We had three trophy goals: to win the Dansville tournament, to win conference, and to win district. We did all of them and also put regional and state champs as extras! They succeeded above and beyond.”
While the Pumas’ post-game celebrations have been nothing but extraordinary and jubilant, Saturday’s postgame events seemed to strike a different chord. Senior Puma defender, Zach Reinsma, sensed the difference in tone after claiming victory in the state final game. “I think the excitement was a different type of excitement, we had been so excited to move on the to the next round in every other game and the last win was finishing the job, everyone was still really excited but I think for a lot of us it was kind of surreal and a lot of us were just enjoying the moment and realizing that it was over, but we had finally done it.”
Nhial felt overwhelming gratitude for the team’s accomplishment. “All I can say is, all thanks be to God. It was no mistake that we were all put together in this situation and more than half of our line up has been playin soccer together since we were in 7th grade, but it feels great to have done this with such a special and talented group of guys.”
While Stout, a four year all-state player, has garnered much of the attention from the media and opposing defenses, alike, the Pumas postseason run made one thing very clear, it took every boy dressed in navy & white to make the dream a reality. Colago expressed just how crucial a total team effort had been to their success this season. “Everybody’s contribution was positive and necessary for this group to succeed. The guys sacrificed, played for each other, persevered through past fears, and came out stronger to eventual champions… Each guy should be remembered as a valued member of a team that prayed together, was in fellowship together, and won trophies together!”
Stout echoed his coach. “It’s amazing, these are guys that I have been waking up before 6 with to lift and train before school, even in the spring and summer putting in hours doing passing and shooting drills… But not even just that, I obviously go to school with these guys and see them every day and joke around whenever we see each other. This was a family, and we all wanted to win for each other more than we wanted to win for ourselves, and that not only helped us win, but made the wins that much sweeter.”
Colago concluded, “I love these guys like they are my own sons and I am forever grateful for these last three months with them. They will go down in Puma history as champions and they will be better men because of this experience together!”
A common colloquialism in athletics is “finish.” While all teams will have their curtain call at some point during the postseason, only one team gets to have it on their own terms. This season, that call was answered by the boys of Potter’s House in resounding and united fashion.