Portage chasing past soccer glory
MICHIGAN CITY -- In the formative years of soccer in Northwest Indiana, before the Indiana High School Athletic Association sanctioned the sport and the Northern Cup was the grand prize for the handful of Region schools with teams, Portage and Valparaiso set the bar.
A generation later, the curve has not only caught up with the Indians, they're now the ones playing catch-up.
"Back then, there wasn't a whole lot of club soccer going on, and what there was, it was Portage and Valpo," coach Dave Kurtz said. "As club got better, now you've got three to five big clubs in the area with between 300 to 500 kids, and those kids are all playing high-level soccer between November and June. It's totally different than how it used to be. You could get away with maybe half of your roster just playing local."
That's where Portage is at right now, in Kurtz's second season, with program numbers roughly half of that of the Duneland Athletic Conference and area elite.
"We're going to have to change on the youth side of it for the high school to be better," Kurtz said. "We need to really get intertwined with the rec programs, get kids better training, better competition in the spring time. We've got a lot of non-club players on the roster. The kids playing November to June at a high level, we have a handful of those guys, and you can see it on the field. The other guys, we try to get them up to speed as fast as we can. They respond really well. They know the difference. I can see them grasping it, wanting to get better, but it's November to June that puts the program together."
Portage now finds itself scuffling to win DAC matches let alone compete with the upper echelon, as evidenced by Wednesday's 1-0 loss to Michigan City, which is also trying to get on track under new coach and former Chesterton star Jordan Lewis.
"This is the hardest working team I've ever been a part of," Lewis said. "I've never been with a team that wants to win more than them."
Vince Bruemmer provided the winning margin when he chipped in a loose ball after a free kick got away from the Portage keeper with 18 minutes left.
"I was just in the right place at the right time, and I kicked it in," Bruemmer said. "Every chance I got, I tried to get up there. Depending on where the corner or the cross is, I just try to go to the far post, do a clean-up kind of thing."
Evan Bush, the Wolves' 6-foot-5 keeper, secured the air around the City goal, using his height advantage to snatch anything that was elevated. Portage's best chance came in the 74th minute when a header onto an open target sailed high.
"I thought we outplayed them the whole game," Kurtz said. "We were easily 60-40, maybe 70-30 possession, we had eight corner kicks, we had chances to score but couldn't put it away. You've got to put the ball in the net. If we'd taken care of the ball at the top, we would've come out with a different result. The teams, the players were well-matched. I thought they had some really good threats up top with their speed. They played to the potential of all their players and they came out with the result."
The low score surprised Lewis, considering the way the match started.
"I thought it would be fast-paced, up and down," he said. "The first five minutes, I thought it was going to be 19 to 19 (shots). Once we settled down and played our game, we looked amazing."
Bush patrols the goal box much like he roams the paint in basketball, blocking shots and snagging rebounds.
"It's basically the same," Bush said. "When I usually block a shot (in basketball), I usually chase it down. In soccer, they shoot it so I have to chase the ball down and get it before they do to make a save. It's just being ready at all times. all the energy from the crowd gets me going. All the energy from the crowd gets me going."
A keeper as a sophomore, Bush returned to the pipes this season after playing center mid last year.
"Wherever my team needs me," he said. "It feels great."
Like Bush, Lewis excelled in soccer and basketball in high school -- "That's all he talks about," Bush said. -- though Lewis was a perimeter player in both, a midfielder and a point guard.
"He had a clean sheet. He did fantastic," Lewis said. "When you've got a goalie this good, you can't score on us too easy. When you're as athletic as he is, you can basically put him anywhere you want. He's got abilities to play in college in more than one sport and we've got to make sure it happens."
With teams holding senior nights early in the season out of concern for a COVID-19 shutdown, the Wolves honored their Class of 2021, lifting the two fans per player restriction for the occasion.
"It feels great to win on senior night," Lewis said. "It's the first time the whole families were allowed to come. It's One City, One Pack here, and you can definitely see that. It comes through the fans and the players, and it was two seniors stepping up on a night they'll remember the rest of their lives."
After missing baseball season in the spring to the state's shutdown of prep sports, Bruemmer appreciated the moment,
knowing he's not assured of having another one.
Vince Bruemmer Evan Bush
it because I scored and it's just a unique experience with the pandemic," he said. "It's just different."
While the best days of the program are down the road, both players like where the Wolves (2-4-3) are headed.
"I like it," Bruemmer said. "It's much more structured. more disciplined. We're more conditioned, too."
"We work way, way harder in practice," Bush said. "I feel like it's helped us a lot, especially on the defensive end."
Portage's pre-season progress was hampered by a three-week athletics shutdown to coronavirus concerns.
"It's like, how much are they going to do, how much are they going to be pushed?" Kurtz said. "I'm hoping it's about peaking. If we can stay injury-free, keep developing, getting some chemistry, the kids get better, more conditioned, maybe we can finish out strong."