Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
BIG RAPIDS — When the final horn sounded on a rain-soaked night at Big Rapids High School’s Cardinal Stadium, Fremont boys soccer players walked off the field in a mix of agony, dejection, and numbness.
Fremont fell to Alma, 2-1, in a hard-fought Division 3 regional final. Just like that, the Packers’ magical ride was over.
They were hoping their historic season would never end. However, even if a team wins a state championship, the season has to come to a close.
“They need reflect on the season and think, ‘Boy, how many other Fremont teams have gone 21-2-1?’ I mean, we’re the only ones,” Fremont coach Steve Vissia said. “It’s going to take a couple of days, but they will look back on it and reflect and they’ll have great memories for it. But, yeah, it hurts like crazy right now.”
Fremont was among the final eight left standing in Division 3 — a feat nobody would have imagined coming off a 4-15-1 record last fall.
The Packers rebounded in a big way this season. They captured an outright West Michigan Conference championship as well as a district crown. They made the deepest state tournament run in program history.
“This is the best way I wanted to go out: Regional final. Obviously, I would want to keep going, but at the beginning of the season if you would have told me we’d lose the regional final … I would have been happy with it,” said Chaz Miller, one of Fremont’s senior leaders.
“I mean, it sucks, but we had four wins last year. Who cares if we lose a regional final? We got here.”
Eighth-ranked Alma (20-4-0) captured its first regional title and will face second-ranked Hudsonville Unity Christian (19-2-1) in Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. state semifinals at Cedar Springs.
The Panthers started their season 3-4 but they’re on a roll, having not lost a match since August. They’re riding a 17-game winning streak.
“We had a losing record at the start of the season, but we went down and played a ranked Notre Dame team at their place, up to Elk Rapids and played a ranked team up there,” Alma coach Nick O’Neill said. “But we haven’t lost since August and the kids have just been rolling and we’ve just enjoyed every moment.”
Light rain fell at the beginning of Thursday’s regional final, but before long there were moments of very heavy precipitation.
Alma got on the board a little more than 10 minutes into the match when Brayden Truman finished a ball from the top of the 18. The remainder of the first half was a back-and-forth affair with no more scoring.
Alma made it 2-0 about 12 minutes into the second half, when Leo Richter tallied amid traffic in front of the Fremont goal.
With 16 minutes left in regulation, Fremont got new life. John Vissia found Miller, who scored his third goal in two regional games to pull the Packers within 2-1.
Fremont seemed to play with more urgency and created some chances, reminiscent of Tuesday’s 3-2 regional semifinal win over Kingsford when they overcame a 2-0 halftime deficit, but the Packers just couldn’t net the equalizer.
“You can only go to that well so many times. When we got down 1-0, there’s still hope; 2-0, still hope, it’s just a little bit more difficult,” Steve Vissia said. “You know, we didn’t capitalize on some opportunities, we made some mistakes, and when you do that at this level it’s going to get you sooner or later.
“We were able to make it up before, in the first game of regionals, but this Alma team’s a really good team and they just knocked the ball and possessed really well. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities up front. We had one at the end with about 2 1/2 minutes left that I thought could possibly go, but fell a little short tonight.”
Alma finished with a 10-5 advantage over Fremont in shots.
Caleb Vissia made eight saves for Fremont, while Noah Vega had four stops for Alma.
Fremont will graduate six seniors who have meant a lot to the program: Miller, Tee Ward, Killian Prewitt, John Vissia, Silas Rinne, and Jude Fair. Bruno Vidigal is a foreign-exchange student and listed as a senior, who spent time on the Packers’ junior varsity squad this season.
“I care for these guys greatly. That’s what I told them at the end in the locker room, ‘I cared for you yesterday, I care for you today, I’m going to care for you tomorrow,'” Steve Vissia said. “It’s a special group. I had the opportunity to coach these kids, many of them, when they were younger and to go up with all the way and see (what they’ve done) … .
“And coach (Tim) Ward has put in his time and coach (Erich) Heger has put in his time with these guys, just made them what they are. You could see the work rate. That’s no coaching — that’s just who they are and it’s fun to be around guys like that.”
When the clock went to zeroes, John Vissia was a picture of raw emotion as he walked off the field with devastation on his face and his hands covering his head. Vissia, like many of his teammates, gave everything he had.
Steve Vissia approached and he consoled his son with an embrace.
After Fremont watched Alma’s trophy presentation, Steve Vissia addressed his team on the field one last time. He reminded the Packers to keep the loss in perspective and thanked them for the amazing ride it’s been.
“I wasn’t going to cry until the coaches started talking and I just lost it then,” Miller said. “Just all the memories come flooding back and it just sucks.”
Steve Vissia thoroughly enjoyed sharing this special season with his sons and it’s tough to see it come to an end.
He views all of his players like they’re his sons.
“It’s a different level when it’s your kid. I care for all the kids; obviously, I care for my own kids as well,” coach Vissia said. “That whole group of guys is a special group. Yeah, we’re going to miss John, we’re going to miss Chaz, we’re to miss Tee, we’re going to miss Jude, we’re going to miss Killian, we’re going to miss Silas.
“I mean, those guys are special and you can’t replace those guys. Is it different that (John’s) my son? Yeah, but he’s still one of the guys. You know it’s coming to an end at some point, so you kind of mentally prepare for that. But it was fun with him this year. It was fun with all those guys for sure.”
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