A group of soccer players are ready to make history in downtown Muskegon this Saturday night.
For the first time ever, a women’s soccer game will be held at the Mercy Health Arena—previously the L.C. Walker Arena. The Muskegon Risers and the Muskegon Community College’s Jayhawks will go head-to-head in the Feb. 15 competition that’s meant to highlight and celebrate the launch of the Risers women’s team—the first semi-professional women’s team to play in the city in about 70 years. [The last one was the Muskegon Lassies, a women’s baseball team that played at Marsh Field from 1946 through 1950.]
“It’s always been predominantly male athletes performing in the arena; we’ve definitely made the players aware that this is something that’s never been done before,” Muskegon Risers President Matt Schmitt said. “It will forever be memorialized that way. They’re doing something really remarkable.”
The game that kicks off at 7:15pm this Saturday will, of course, be a fun form of entertainment—but it’s also much more than that, Schmitt emphasized. It’s an event that raises awareness of the Muskegon Risers women’s team, which begins its first season this summer, and is meant to support and empower local female athletes, Schmitt said. Plus, he said, it’s a way to showcase what the Risers—a name that is a nod to the “Muskegon, Together Rising” sculpture and the general “spirit of revitalization” in the community—are doing to inspire change and growth in the area.
“Saturday’s game is monumental,” said Schmitt, a Muskegon native who played soccer at the University of Michigan and worked for a sports psychology company in Grand Rapids before becoming the president of the Risers. “The Risers want to create social economic change on the lakeshore through soccer and create as much good as we can in the community, and this women’s game is a symbol of that mission. We want to create this platform for women to have this opportunity to play and to have girls come out and watch women play.”
The Muskegon Risers women’s team—which is made up mostly of players from West Michigan—will celebrate its first season this summer; the Risers men’s team launched in 2014. Part of the United Women’s Soccer league, the women’s group will play five home games and five away games against teams from such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.
“The coming game is generating awareness that the Muskegon Risers women’s team has been established and will be playing this summer,” said Schmitt. “We’re going to keep an eye on the response and feedback; we want to see if people enjoy the game and how the game goes,” Schmitt continued.
Depending on the response, Schmitt said they could add an indoor season for the women’s team in the future. The men’s team now has both indoor and outdoor seasons; the women’s will only have an outdoor season when it begins.
For the Risers’ players, most of whom have been playing soccer since they were children, this weekend’s competition is representative of women’s soccer, and women athletes in general, being taken more seriously by society at large. Women’s soccer matches have increasingly dominated the world’s sports landscape, drawing tens of thousands of people to games that, a couple decades ago, had, at most, a couple thousand spectators. And the United States women’s soccer team captured the attention of the world this past summer when they won the World Cup—a victory that has provided them a significant platform upon which to advocate for equal pay for women soccer players.
“It’s new to me for soccer to be exciting like this; you never really hear girls soccer being talked about and promoted as it is right now,” said Aubree Deroo, an Allendale resident who plays defense and forward on the Muskegon Risers. “It’s super exciting.”
Gabby Klemp, a Risers goalkeeper, agreed.
“When I was growing up, we really only had men’s sports to watch, but now that’s changing,” Klemp said.
For a number of the athletes, playing in Muskegon is particularly meaningful for a variety of reasons—from one player noting the city is their hometown to another individual explaining that her brother recently graduated from the Western Michigan Adult & Teen Challenge’s rehab program in Norton Shores.
“I’m excited to play because I grew up here,” said Klemp, who has been playing soccer since the age of five. “I went to college in Chicago, and coming back and playing in my hometown is pretty awesome.”
Sam Osterhaven, who plays forward and is from Caledonia, explained that Muskegon holds a particularly powerful place in her life.
“Having an opportunity to play in Muskegon is really near to my heart because my little brother just graduated from the Western Michigan Adult & Teen drug rehab program,” Osterhaven said. “My family’s spent a lot of time in Muskegon over the last year, and it’s really cool to represent a city I formally had no connection to but has changed my family’s life.”
Anika Huizinga, who plays forward and midfield and is from Wyoming, Mich., along with a number of the players, said it has been a lot of fun to meet players from throughout West Michigan—as well as explore Muskegon, which she said she’d previously only been to for the beach.
“It’s really cool to see another town and experience the atmosphere [soccer] can bring to it,” Huizinga said.
It’s that sentiment that Schmitt is particularly an advocate of, and the Risers president said he wants to make sure soccer is playing a key role in drawing people to Muskegon—and giving them another reason to cheer for the community, literally and figuratively.
“When I was growing up, people couldn’t wait to leave Muskegon,” Schmitt said. “I personally never understood that because I grew up five minutes from the lake and going to the beach. I’ve traveled a lot, and Muskegon is extremely comparable to the most beautiful places in the world. But there was a lot of negative stigma about Muskegon, especially from a media standpoint.”
But, after eight years of being gone—he attended University of Michigan and then traveled for work—Schmitt returned, and found a very different attitude in his hometown.
“There’s been a lot of strong work from the city and county to shine a light on all the good that’s going on, and I think there’s a certain spirit and pride here,” he said. “People don’t want to leave anymore.”
As people continue to cheer for Muskegon, the Risers players are hoping that commitment to the community will translate to a love for their team. With the ever-growing following the Muskegon Risers men’s team has amassed since its inception in 2014—the group has even gone on to attract players from Nigeria to Ireland—the women said they’re hoping to seeing that kind of support and growth for the their team.
“I feel like people should be excited because it’s going to be a great year and a great season,” Osterhaven said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone and the fan base. Hopefully we’ll have real committed fans we see at every game.”