MUSKEGON — The Muskegon Risers’ women’s squad closed out its 2021 home schedule Tuesday night with a 4-1 defeat to Corktown AFC. The Risers, who end the season Sunday with a road game against first-place Midwest United, will finish last in the five-team Midwest North Division of United Women’s Soccer (UWS). They entered the finale with a record of 1-7-1 and a goal differential of minus-29.

All of that, though, is just fine with team owner Matt Schmitt, who also stepped in as a coach this season when original hire Chris Denham had scheduling conflicts with his day job as technical director for the Michigan Fire youth soccer program. The way Schmitt sees it, if the Risers had begun play as an expansion women’s franchise and run through the established league, something would’ve been wrong.

“Winning is a worthy challenge,” Schmitt said. “We’d rather have it this way, with the bar up here, and know that winning is a process. If we were winning straightaway, I think you’d maybe scratch your head and think we weren’t pushing ourselves enough. Muskegon, our mindset is that we deserve to have the highest quality soccer played here possible, and if that means learning our lessons the first couple of years, we’re more than happy to.”

The lessons seem to be sinking in relatively quickly if Tuesday’s game was any indication. The Risers had been routed 8-0 by the same Corktown team in the season opener back on May 9, but Tuesday saw a more confident squad that managed to maintain possession on a consistent basis.

The Risers had a chance to tie the score at two about halfway through the second half, but an open shot was just a hair too high and clipped the crossbar before bouncing over. Corktown, which placed second in the division, responded by scoring the clinching goal nine minutes later, then added another one with 1:15 on the clock for good measure.

“They pretty much finished every single chance they had,” Schmitt said of Corktown. “We were controlling possession in moments and they countered on us. A ton of progress. We’ve seen a core group of players that have established themselves as competitors, ultra-committed. They have taken it upon themselves to win the 1-v-1 battles on the field, and you can see that manifesting in great team performances. We were hard done to at least not have the score be 2-1 or 3-2. Soccer’s a weird game, and that’s the kind of game you could easily win.”

The Risers’ roster included a few local products, including former Reeths-Puffer goalkeeper Gabby Klemp, who made her first career start between the posts after playing collegiately at Division I Chicago State through 2018. North Muskegon alum Sophie Mueller, who plays at Division III Calvin University, scored the Risers’ lone goal of the game on a terrific shot from distance, which at the time cut the Muskegon deficit to 2-1.

Schmitt’s decision to step in as coach for the women’s team after Denham was unavailable was born out of not wanting to “rock the boat too much” — he had already coached the exhibition game that introduced Muskegon to the women’s Risers back in 2019. He was aided by associate head coach Debbie Pekel, a Fruitport grad who was hired to work with Denham and stuck around for this season. Pekel has a big hand in creating game plans and assembling practices, while Schmitt, he joked, is “just louder on the sidelines”.

The season has been, in the Risers’ view, a success despite everything that worked against them. With COVID-19 uncertainty still very much a factor when this summer’s campaign was in the planning stages, Muskegon decided early on to forgo the men’s outdoor season (the men’s squad did play an arena soccer season over the winter) and spotlight the women for their first season of play.

“This is really the first opportunity women players have had in this area to play competitive summer ball, and they’re playing teams that can go toe-to-toe with professional clubs,” Schmitt said. “On the field, that’s been a challenge. Off the field we’ve been really structured.”

Early in the season, the Risers dealt with various obstacles, like fan capacity restrictions and wearing masks on the sidelines prior to updated CDC guidance stating they weren’t necessary for vaccinated people. Fan capacity wasn’t an issue Tuesday as attendance was sparse, although the game was a rescheduled weeknight contest from a June 26 rainout and the forecast called for potential rain (which thankfully was limited to a brief sprinkle in the first half). Still, the familiar signs that line the bleachers for each Risers’ game were still out in force.

“That’s something that I think even from afar on social media, (some) people aren’t quite comfortable coming all the way out to games yet, but between the physical support of people being here and watching our live streams and engaging with us digitally, it’s something where we feel we have a really solid foundation we can build momentum with in the future,” Schmitt said.

The Risers also intentionally did not do as much marketing and outreach prior to this season as usual, not knowing what it would bring and not wanting to make promises they weren’t sure they could keep. The hope is that 2022 will bring more normalcy.

The future continues to appear bright for the Risers, who have long-term agreements with their major partners, Schmitt said. The organization has worked to improve the facilities it plays in, including updating the goals at Mercy Health Arena. The next project, they hope, is widening the field at Monsignor Kehren Stadium at Muskegon Catholic. There’s precious little real estate between the soccer sideline and the lower terrain where the stadium’s track used to be.

“For as historic as it is and how many great memories have been here from Catholic Central’s football team, there’s still so much potential to accommodate more activity, especially in the spring and summer months,” Schmitt said. “We’re kind of taking ownership of that and that’s priority number one, is facilities. When you improve facilities, the culture for soccer follows suit. You can’t have a culture of playing the game at a high level if your facilities don’t accommodate it.”

On the field, the Risers believe they can take a lot from the improvements they made over the course of the season and become a competitive fixture in UWS, just as the men have in the Major Arena Soccer League second division.

“Corktown is one of the top couple of teams in our league,” Schmitt said. “They’ve proved they can compete, and now it’s just about scaling that. That, in turn, will make those players better as they’re training against each other in practice. They’ll continue to get better.”

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