PARCHMENT — With just five returning players and no coach, things looked bleak for the Parchment soccer team at the beginning of summer.
Boy, have things changed.
Former football offensive line coach Jesse Roder agreed to take the head soccer coach’s job and, with some intensive recruiting, the Panthers not only fielded a team this season but are headed into tonight’s Division 3 District Semifinal with an 11-6-1 record.
Those 11 wins are two more than the last three years combined and make this the first time in 14 years Parchment has had double-digit wins.
In fact, the Panthers’ record over the previous three seasons was 9-41-3 overall.
Athletic director Brennan Davis credits Roder for the turnaround.
“Our first-year coach has done an excellent job creating a positive environment for the team,” Davis said. “He is focused on building character and camaraderie within the program. Academics, participation, relationships, reliability are all important to Coach Roder.”
The players echo those accolades.
Junior goalkeeper Brady Caswell said it was an angry team the past two seasons with a lot of fighting among teammates.
“This year, everyone’s excited to play, ready to play, a little hungry to play, and I love that,” Caswell said. “Everybody works hard, and that’s the big change.
“You can see it out there. We’re faster, we’re stronger, we have more ambition this year because no one pushed each other before.”
He credits the team’s defense for his own success this year.
“That’s one thing that has changed a lot over these last couple years,” the keeper said. “I used to see 20 or 30 shots a game and we’ve cut that down to about half, which gives me a way better chance at saving shots and less chance of getting injured.”
Roder had a big decision to make before taking the head coaching job: His son, Brady Newington, is a senior lineman on the Panthers football team.
But Roder, who played soccer in high school while growing up in Garden in the Upper Peninsula, liked the challenge of turning the soccer program around.
Roder, who also coaches powerlifting and track, recruited from those ranks.
“Most of our athletes are first-year soccer players,” he said. “I approached a bunch of my powerlifters and told them I thought it would be right up their alley, so let’s give it a shot, and they did.”
Because of their dismal record the last few years, the Panthers have been underdogs in most of their games this season, including their District Quarterfinal last week, a 2-1 shootout win over South Haven.
“Last year they beat us 8-0,” Roder said. “We knew they were going to be a little confident, but our team’s philosophy starts with, ‘We’re going to outwork everybody in everything we do.’
“We do an hour conditioning every day when we have practice. We played 100 minutes of soccer last night, and not a lick of them was tired.”
Roder also mandates lifting two days a week and has his own solution to any in-team fighting, holding players accountable.
“We have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule,” he said. “If you argue with a teammate once and I warn you about it, you’re sent home and you miss the next game.
“Do it again, you miss another game. You do it a third time, you’re off the team.”
The coach has given out just one warning all season.
Key players step up
Freshman Cameron Wagner, who leads the team with 26 goals, made an immediate impact.
“That kid’s vision of the field and his soccer IQ at the age of 15 is leaps and bounds beyond many coaches,” Roden said. “He’s got a real bright future in front of him.”
Wagner and teammate Caden Ragan were selected to the Southwestern Athletic Conference all-conference team Saturday.
Familiar with past Parchment teams, Wagner figured this season would be more of the same.
“I wasn’t going to take it seriously, but thought it would be good for conditioning,” the freshman said.
“Once (the season) started, it became more like a family.”
Wagner credits the coach with his success.
“The coach made me condition a lot, which helped me,” he said. “He changed dribble moves which I couldn’t even think of. At home, now I do the drills he taught me.”
Ragan was the one who fired the winning shot last week.
“I was the fourth (kicker) and I took the (shot) before the other person,” Ragan said. “Brady saved their fourth and saved us the game.”
Roder said the goalkeeper has been strong all season and is the most analytical and intelligent person he has met as far as goalkeeping goes.
“During the game, he watches people and the way they play the ball off their foot,” the coach said. “He sees which way they go with the ball more often than not.
“So when we got into the shootout situation (in Districts), he actually was telling the ref before he walked up there which way the kid was going to go, and he guessed right every single time. He didn’t get to all the balls, but he still managed to pull off a couple stops which gave us the win.”
Another captain who has been on the team all four years is central defensive midfielder Ty Mulka.
“First two years weren’t the best,” he said. “My friends kept me on the team. This year was our best year.”
If Parchment did not field a team this year, “I was afraid we’d have to merge with our rival school, Comstock,” he said.
The coach said Mulka has been a workhorse.
“He’s been here every single day for everything,” Roder said. “He’s never missed, and he has a relentless work ethic.
“For being a small guy (5-foot-10, 150 pounds) he loves to put a body on people, so he plays a really physical style of soccer. Does a great job seeing the field, and he’s got a laser of a shot.”
Senior center midfielder Wyatt Nieboer said, “I thought 100 percent there would not be a team this year. I found out during the summer.
“I was just happy to play. I knew there was a new coach, and I heard he was really good, which he is, but I didn’t think there was going to be a massive change like there is.”
Roder said Nieboer is a “high energy, a bigger-bodied kid (5-8, 190). His work ethic will not let people beat him. He’s a honey badger.”
Not ready to end
Having tasted success this season, Ragan said the team is not ready to end it.
“The people want to play more,” the junior said. “We’ve had more practices that are actually helping us as a team.
“Things like the weight room are helping build the team and make us stronger, which helps us win games.”
Roder said Ragan, who is one of the captains, has good leadership qualities.
“He has a natural good touch on the ball,” he said. “He’s very aggressive, very physically dominating. Does a great job going up to get balls, contesting people.”
The Panthers will have a tough test tonight when they host Grand Rapids South Christian (12-4-2), ranked seventh in the state in Division 3 and coming off a bye.
“They’re really good,” Roder said. “They move the ball really, really well. It’s going to be a tough test.
“The kids are excited about soccer around here, and that’s something we want to bring back. We’ve got eight seniors on the squad, probably the last time they’re going to play, so we’re trying to eke out as much time as we can.”
Caswell said all the credit goes to the coach.
“Thank Coach Roder for helping change everything here,” the goalkeeper said. “He’s been one of the biggest parts in changing the culture, changing the team, changing how we play soccer.”
Other seniors on the team are Devin Wilson, Myles Brooks, Kriss Patel, Tyler Lingbeek, Darius Baker and Akhil Veecumsee. Juniors are Keagan Cole, Trey Sukola, Conner Moynihan, Elijah Damron-Webster and Luka Lagina, while sophomores are Tyrone Edwards, Micah Shank, Cayden Brown and Hayden Hose.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Parchment’s Darius Baker, left, controls possession during a game against Allegan. (2) From left: Parchment coach Jesse Roder, Brady Caswell and Caden Ragan. (3) Micah Shank  steps into a kick. (4) The Panthers’ Cayden Brown  defends. (5) From left: Wyatt Nieboer, Ty Mulka and Cameron Wagner. (Action photos by Shawnia Preston/Oh Shoot Photography, head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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