BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
FREMONT, Mich. – On the backs of a T-shirt, those surrounding the Fremont soccer program have boldly displayed the phrase “Flip The Script” around town these days.
There’s plenty of reasons surrounding that catch phrase in the small town, located 26 miles northeast of Muskegon.
A year ago, the Packers boys soccer team ventured through a major rebuilding campaign where things simply didn’t go Fremont’s way at all. The Packers ended up finishing a dismal 4-15-1 and in the bottom third of the West Michigan Conference, where the school began its stay in a new league after a long stint in the Central State Activities Association.
Fast forward to today and Fremont is enjoying a storybook season and has distinguished itself as the greatest turnaround program in all of Michigan in quite some time.
Following Tuesday’s come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over 11th-ranked Kingsford, the Packers reached pioneer-type ground by becoming the school’s very first soccer team to advance to the Division 3 regional finals. Fremont is now 21-1-1 and enjoying the ride as part of the Elite Eight of the postseason – a goal that no one thought possible after last season’s disaster.
“We have those shirts that say, “Flip The Script”, which is really cool because we only won four games last season,” noted senior center back and captain John Vissia, one of six seniors on the roster. “We wanted to go from four wins to 15 wins this season and try to win a district this year. But 21 wins with a district and a chance to play in the regional finals. I’ll be honest I never thought this would be possible.”
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The Packers have outscored the opposition 103-20 this season with nine shutouts. Fremont captured its first West Michigan Conference league championship in only its second year in the conference. In contrast, the Packers were outscored 92-44 a year ago before bowing out in the first round of the state tournament to nearby Shelby (3-2). They were shut out twice and only collected one clean sheet as a team.
“We had a change in attitude,” admitted Fremont coach Steve Vissia. “Anything that could go wrong last year did go wrong and we did not have good chemistry as a team. We moved to a new conference and there was tougher competition. We had won the CSAA the previous three years and that’s nothing bad to say about the teams we saw in that league, but the competition in the WMC is a lot stronger. Maybe the boys thought this (winning league championships) is what we do and expected to contend last season. This is not just what we do. You have to earn it and last year we were young but we learned a few lessons. We didn’t earn it. There’s some really good players in the WMC and we struggled last year quite a bit. Last year we finished 10th out of 11 teams in our first year in the WMC and in some of our games we were not competitive.
“So we came up with the phrase “Flip to Script” to try to go 15-4 instead of 4-15 and we were able to accomplish a lot more than that,” continued Coach Vissia.
Last year Fremont took its lumps and rightfully so, as the roster had several freshmen and sophomores and the team was somewhat inexperienced against some quality opponents. The Packers only graduated two players and one starter at the end of the year and also saw a handful of other players opt not to return this year.
“Our chemistry is much better,” added Coach Vissia, who noted that he carried 17 players on varsity all season and opted not to bring any players up from the junior varsity in the tournament. “We are a year older, some of the kids worked hard in the offseason and we are healthy. But most importantly we have great chemistry. We might not necessarily have a team with a bunch of high-level club players like some of the schools down in Muskegon and Grand Rapids do, like a (Hudsonville) Unity Christian. But we do have some really athletic kids who work hard and play well together. Chemistry is everything and I think that’s a big difference this year over last year and a big reason why we’ve improved so much.”
The Packers won the Central State Activities Association (CSAA) three straight years from 2019-2021, but even that conference didn’t create the type of competition that the Packers have seen in the West Michigan Conference and this year’s state tournament. Fremont was CSAA champs in 2019 (15-4-4), 2020 (14-2-2) and 2021 (11-5-4) but each year the Packers could not advance past either the pre-district or district semifinals round in the D-3 state tournament.
That was followed up by last year’s four-win campaign and first-round exit, although the Packers only lost to Shelby 3-2 and were slightly more competitive at the end of the campaign.
Kingsford was the first ranked opponent the Packers have faced this season, although Ludington was close as the Orioles were honorable mention in the D-2 rankings the final month of the season and has a long history of soccer success.
Ironically, Ludington, the WMC runner-up this year and league champion last year, is the only team to beat Fremont this season and that came in a 4-2 setback back on Sept. 25. That was the only time all season until Tuesday’s win over Kingsford that the Packers trailed by two goals. Since that defeat, Fremont has won eight straight overall and has outscored the opposition 28-7 in that stretch with three shutouts.
Fremont brought back 11 players that started at times last season. Senior forward Chaz Miller injured his knee in last year’s season opener and missed the rest of the campaign and part of the basketball season as well. He leads the team with 28 goals and 18 assists this year and is great in the air and on the attack with his feet. John Vissia, one of the coach’s sons, has added nine goals and seven assists out of the back and has anchored the defense. He was All-League and All-District last season. Senior Killian Prewitt (F) has contributed 12 goals and 12 assists up top.
Senior midfielder Tee Ward was All-League Honorable Mention last season and All-District and is a set-up guy with three goals and nine assists. He “gets a ton of hockey assists”, according to his coach. Sophomore Deagan Klimak (M/F) has been a pleasant surprise with a co-team-leading 28 goals and 12 assists. Juniors Colson Buitendorp, Joey Mansfield, Redrick Powell and Eddie Springstead and sophomore Hudson Wiersema have all rotated in the midfield as well.
Senior German-exchange student Silas Rinne has also helped out the back line while contributing eight goals and four assists to the offense, many on restarts. Juniors Carter Rottman and Ian Berry, senior Jude Fair and freshman Taylor Rowe have also aided the much-improved defensive effort. Sophomore Caleb Vissia, the coach’s other son, is the returning goalkeeper and has helped his team to the nine shutouts.
In every sense of the word, Fremont has turned the tables and is improved all over the soccer pitch.
The community of Fremont – more known for its Gerber plant…that’s right, that Gerber – than its soccer program, has stunned the Michigan soccer community in 2023. The Packers were never considered for the coaches association Division 3 Top 15 rankings and didn’t ever win a regional game in program history until this week. Previously, Fremont’s first district title came 17 years ago back in 2006 when many of the current members were even born yet, and the Packers were quickly ushered out of the state tournament in the regional semifinals that year.
Still the Packers are in the regional finals for the first time as part of the Division 3 Elite Eight and enjoying their storybook season and new-found celebrity status around town.
“It’s funny. We even had some sponsors from around town chipped in and rent us a charter bus to go to our game against Kingsford,” laughed John Vissia, who is being courted by some smaller NAIA schools. “How cool was that? We’ve never been treated like this, especially after winning four games last year.”
Regardless of how the Packers do in the Elite Eight, the town of Fremont is on the state map for more than just being a factory and agricultural town. Fremont’s soccer team faces Alma at 6 p.m. Thursday at Big Rapids and is having one fine season – becoming the talk of the town in the process.
“Honestly, if you told me at the beginning of the year that we would have 21 wins and be playing in the regional finals I wouldn’t have believed you,” joked Coach Vissia. “I had hoped, we all did, to win 15 games and maybe compete for a district, but now here we are playing for a regional championship.”