Gielczyk: Leland Boys Soccer Hitting its Stride at the Right Time
After winning the program’s first state title, what do you do for an encore?
That’s easy, of course. Get back to the state finals and bring home another. At least, that’s the mindset of the Leland boys soccer team as it prepares to defend the title this year.
Despite seeing its long-time head coach, Joe Burda who coached team for 10 years, stepped down after the Comets’ incredible run to last year’s Division 4 state title, and bidding farewell to several key players through graduation, the Comets haven’t seemed to have missed a beat.
But, there’s no surprise in that.
The Comets soccer team might play in the shadow of the storied girls volleyball program, which lost in the Division 4 state semifinals a year ago to fall short in its bid for a fourth state title in the 21st century, but it has established its own tradition of success on the pitch.
But last season will be hard to match.
Leland finished 24-1-3 last year, which included 11 victories by the eight-goal mercy rule. The Comets crushed three of their playoff opponents by eight goals to end their games early.
During one stretch of the season Leland knocked off the teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 3 at the time, and had 17 shutout victories. The Comets were almost impossible to score on, giving up just two goals in seven tournament games.
That’s a tough act to follow, and the Comets have already lost three more games than the team did last year.
Leland is 13-4-1 at the moment, is ranked No. 5 in the state and sits in the top eight in terms of the MPR on the MHSAA website. So, it’s pretty much the status quo for the Comets.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate that we have a program that develops good talent,” Wheeler said. “The big thing is to maintain high expectations for our kids.”
Leland graduated four positions from its starting 11 last year, and six seniors overall, including leading scorer Cobe Lund who knocked in 43 goals and added 23 assists.
But the Comets have seven returning starters among a group that boasted six players who scored 15 or more goals.
One of the key returners is junior goalkeeper Gavin Miller who was named All-State as a sophomore despite sharing time in net with the graduated Andy Mosqueda, who was also a defender in the back line.
Also back for another season is second leading scorer from last year, Michael Roberts as well as senior Jesus Calderon-Balcazar, a midfielder who tallied the game-winning goals in both the state semifinal and final, and had two goals in the semifinal.s
Center back JJ Popp started as a sophomore last year, and senior Owen Kareck returned to disrupt the opponents’ offense back on defense while Andrew Masse has taken his game to the next level in the midfield.
Andrew Pershinske, a senior defender, has seen a lot more minutes this season. Wesley Richardson, a freshman, is also a key cog and sophomore Ben Kissel has been critical out on the wing for the Comets.
So, it’s not a totally new look for the Comets. Wheeler, in fact, has been around the program for three years prior to this as an assistant and junior varsity coach.
“We’ve changed our formation a couple of times,” said Wheeler of the Comet offense. “Usually, it takes me three tries to get it right through the course of a season, and we’re on version three for this season. We feel pretty good about it.
“Kids are a year older. They’re bigger, stronger, faster and that allows us to do some things differently, and we’re also have a difference in personnel. That changes things. Even though we have a lot of kids coming back, it’s still a different group.”
Leland has played some quality opponents, had some really good tests and learned some valuable lessons along the way.
In Division 4, it’s typical to run across teams that are either defensive heavy or offensive heavy. Leland is about as balanced as they come.
Wheeler says he feels the Comets are primed to make a decent run in the playoffs. He’s not making any promises, but he says he feels good about how the team is playing.
He says he feels like the Comets are getting better every week. They’re always trending up, he says, and hitting their stride at the right time.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at email@example.com for story ideas.