By Steve Gunn/NPSL.com
Muskegon Risers head coach Stu Collins had a little talk with Vitalis Takawira, his team’s leading scorer, before Friday’s NPSL Midwest Region semifinal game against Duluth FC.
“I just told him that he’s the best player in the country at this level, and tonight was the game to showcase it,” Collins said.
Takawira, who’s been on a scoring binge lately, did exactly what his coach asked.
After the Risers fell behind 2-0 early in the game, Takawira went to work, scoring two goals in the first half and two more in the second to lead Muskegon to an impressive 5-2 comeback win at Oakridge High School.
It was the second straight great game for Takawira, who had both goals in last week’s 2-0 victory over Columbus that gave the Risers the Great Lakes Conference Championship.
“Every day I just go to training and give 110 percent effort always,” said Takawira, a small player who stands about 5-foot-6. “I’ve been doing it for the team, myself, and all of the fans. That’s what keeps me going. We knew Duluth was a very good team and we had to pick up our game. Every game I always get hungrier and hungrier.”
The Risers now advance to play Cleveland SC on Sunday at 3 pm at Oakridge in the Midwest Region championship game. The matchup will pit the old guard against the new kids on the block.
Cleveland, a traditional power, has won the Midwest Region title for the past two seasons of league competition (2019 and 2021). Muskegon is in its first season in the NPSL and has not competed at all in the summer for the past two seasons due to COVID.
A victory on Sunday would put the Risers in the national semifinals, just two wins away from claiming a league title.
Friday’s game couldn’t have possibly started out worse for the Risers.
They were a bit anxious going in because starting goaltender Mason Maziasz was not able to play due to injury, so they turned to Daniel Morgan, a 17-year-old senior goalkeeper from the Holland Christian High School soccer team.
Morgan came out of the goal to handle a ball less than two minutes into the game when Duluth’s Sam Thornton broke in and stole it, got past him, and scored.
In the 10th minute, Duluth’s Wynand Wessels had a long free kick from about 40 yards out that seemed to catch Morgan and the Risers by surprise and found its way into the net, putting the visitors up 2-0.
But falling behind seemed to bring the Risers to life. They started controlling play, outshooting Duluth 6-0 over the rest of the first half and tying the game by halftime.
Takawira started things off when he was taken down inside the Duluth goal box in the 15th minute, then put a penalty shot in the net to make the score 2-1.
The host team pulled even in the 43rd minute when Takawira took a centering pass from Cameron Power in front of the goal and scored, leaving the game knotted 2-2 at the break.
The second half was all Risers.
Theodore Maye gave Muskegon a 3-2 lead when he knocked in a rebound of a blocked shot in the 52nd minute. Takawira scored his third goal about seven minutes later when he took a pass and broke in alone on the Duluth goal, making the score 4-2.
Takawira put the finishing touches on his night with his fourth goal in the 64th minute.
Muskegon outshot Duluth 7-3 in the second half.
Collins said he wasn’t overly concerned when his team fell behind early because he knew his players were more than capable of coming back.
“We weren’t even bad, we were just a little shell-shocked,” Collins said about the rough start. “But there were only nine minutes gone and there was no point in panicking. I was just thinking, let’s get the next goal and maybe stay within one at halftime. We were starting to assert our dominance in the game.”
The coach said he felt a great deal of pride after the comeback victory was complete and the Risers had earned their ticket to the conference finals.
“They are warriors, they are special men,” Collins said about his players. “I can’t say enough about them. I’m just so proud to be associated with them.”
Collins also gave a lot of credit to Morgan for overcoming the rough start and finishing the game strong.
“He’s 17-years-old, and I think his nerves got to him a bit early, but for him to have the mentality to finish the game like that was great,” Collins said. “I’m just so proud of him for showing character like that.”
Duluth, which missed winning the North Conference in the regular season by a single point in the standings, finished with an 11-3-1 record.
“It’s just unfortunate, especially after the effort we put in the last two or three months, so it’s kind of tough to walk away empty-handed, but there’s not much we can do about it,” said Duluth head coach Sean Morgan.
Photo Credit: Chris Robotham/NPSL.com