BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
ALMA, Mich. – Whenever Nick O’Neill looks at his team’s soccer field, he sees a lot green.
Not just the grass, but crops, too.
“I see a lot of corn,” laughed O’Neil. “Our soccer field is behind the middle school and all I see on three sides of it right now is a lot of corn.”
Alma is located around 15 miles south of Mt. Pleasant and in an rural area of the state. There are a lot of small towns and localities in the area built on small industry and agricultural products. Even Alma, which also boats of NCAA Division III Alma College, is anchored by some refineries, small factories and grain elevators. Nearby Ithaca, Shepherd and Middleton are the same way.
The train comes through town once or twice a day and makes some noise before heading to the next rural locality. Those trains are headed railyards in either Cadillac or Lansing.
“Alma is out there, really, in the middle of nowhere,” joked O’Neill. “There is Mt. Pleasant to the north but most of the towns in our area are small. We are 45 minutes to an hour north of Lansing.”
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O’Neill, the boys soccer coach at Alma High School, also sees a lot of promise from his squad in recent years. They alone have stirred up quite a bit of racket and attention in recent years.
Alma has won three district titles in four seasons, reached the Division 3 Elite Eight last season and recently celebrated its first regional title and advanced to the Final Four in state for the first time in program history.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what these boys have accomplished,” noted O’Neill, no stranger to long postseason runs.
He attended Petoskey High School in the mid-1990s and actually helped the Northmen claim the 1995 Class B state championship. Perhaps that expertise has helped the Panthers these last couple of years. They have went from a middle-of-the-pack team in the two-division Tri-Valley Conference to one of the contenders these last couple of seasons and this year have collected some championship hardware along the way.
The last team from the Mt. Pleasant region to reach the Final Four of the boys soccer state tournament was tiny little Mt. Pleasant Baptist in 1996 and that school claimed the state championship that year before shuttering its doors a few years later. Alma has joined those ranks.
To the south, several Lansing area schools have made the trip to the last week of the season, but not our in the rural fields in over two decades.
Alma is 20-4-0 this season with its best season in school history. The Panthers have entered unchartered waters as of late and will visit Cedar Springs High School Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. to take on No. 2-ranked state powerhouse Hudsonville Unity Christian (19-2-1) in the state semifinals.
Last season Alma was 18-4-1 and lost to powerful Elk Rapids 1-0 in the regional finals. To put into perspective, Elk Rapids is ranked virtually every single year and has been to the Final Four 17 times in its history.
Alma is now making its first appearance in the final week. This year’s team eclipsed 20 wins for the first time and has outscored the opposition 109-21 with 12 shutouts this year – and carry a 17-game win streak into the Final Four.
The Panthers welcomed back most of its roster this season and lost only three players overall. Senior forward Leo Richter is the all-time leading goal scorer in school history and made the Division 3 All-State First Team list last season. Sophomore midfielder Jack Lamerand was All-State Third Team as a freshman a year ago, while junior goalkeeper Noah Vega and senior forward/center back Daniel Ash were both All-State Honorable Mention in 2022.
Richter, who is being courted by some smaller NAIA and NCAA Division III colleges, has 31 goals and nine assists, sophomore forward Braden Truman leads the way with 32 goals and eight assists, and Lamerand has 19 goals and 15 assists as part of a balanced attack.
Senior Aidan O’Neill (M), a fourth-year veteran, and seniors Eli Haller (D), Ash (D), Collin Helinski (D) and Ethan Bailey (D) have also been consistent performers. Ash made the huge sacrifice being moved to the backline after scoring 20 goals as a junior.
This season several Panthers earned All-League and All-District and a handful of them will be up for All-Region or even All-State. But its all been about the team concept.”
“These guys play for each other which is nice to see. Even Daniel Ash was moved to center back after being one of our top goal scorers last season,” noted O’Neill. “We needed for someone to help out back there and moving Daniel there has helped us a ton.”
A year ago, Alma surprised some by starting the campaign 8-0-0. This year, Coach O’Neill went out a much tougher non-conference schedule as the Panthers started 3-4-0. That included Berkley, which was ranked in the top five in Division 1 all season. There were no surprises this time around.
The Panthers are good, compiling a 58-18-7 record over the last four seasons and averaged 14.5 wins a year in that span.
Now Alma is one of the hottest teams in the state heading into the Final Four week. The Panthers are clicking on all cylinders. They have a chance to play one of the historical programs in the state in the state semifinals in Unity Christian – winners of five MHSAA State championships – and are one win away from playing on the final day.
“There’s always a lot of very good teams each year making runs,” noted O’Neill. “(Advancing) is so hard. Everything has to go right. So far, we’ve been able to win some close games and we are still in it.”
‘It’ is the Final Four. Alma is there for the first time, making school history. The finals are at Grand Ledge High School next Saturday only an hour southwest of Alma. Can Alma be the little engine that could?
Can Alma mow down another great program and advance all the way to the championship round?