1. Men’s Soccer is building a solid program
It wasn’t a runaway success of a season but there are plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the state Men’s Soccer team moving forward. The team finished with a respectable record of 6-6-5 and finished 3-4-5 in GLIAC play in what is now viewed as the most successful season in its three-year history.
Senior forward Sam Popp is graduating from the team and the Wildcat offense will feel an impact from his absence. Also departing from the team is senior defender Kevin Hoof who was a solid presence in the Wildcat backfield as well as an outspoken captain. However, the ’Cats have several key contributors returning to fill the void of their departing counterparts.
Expect to see redshirt-sophomore forward Ben Hoffman assert himself into the team MVP conversation after posting 12 points this season and scoring 5 goals. Junior forward Callum Olpin also contributed with 12 points and 4 goals this season. With Popp’s offense absent from the team next season, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see either of these players stepping up and having huge seasons.
Defensively, the Wildcats look to have freshman goalkeeper Valentin Kliebe anchoring the team after posting a 4-5-5 record in 13 games started. Kliebe helped guide NMU to 420 straight scoreless minutes.
Of the Wildcats’ six loses, only one of those was by more than a goal. Combined with five ties, NMU was just a few plays shy of being a serious contender in the GLIAC. With so many key players returning next season, the team should have a heightened focus on closing games out that should put the ’Cats on the winning side of those close matchups.
2. Men’s Basketball’s fast start isn’t a fluke
One week into December and Northern Michigan has established themselves as a competitor in a loaded GLIAC conference. Perennial powerhouses Grand Valley State University and Ashland University may still be ahead of the Wildcats in the standings, but those two teams are jostling for first place in the GLIAC-South. In the GLIAC-North, Ferris State is off to a slow start by their standards with a 5-5 record, but anything can happen as the season progresses.
The key to NMU’s fast start has been the development of senior guard/forward Isaiah Johnson who has transcended to another level and is scoring at a blistering pace. Johnson so far this season has been named GLIAC Player of the Week three times this season and is scoring 25 points-per-game and is hitting 60 percent of his shots, including over 50 percent of his shots from three- point range.
Almost more impressively for the ’Cats is their commitment to playing a complete games. In six wins this season, NMU has beaten their opponents by double-digits with their lone single-digit win ending with an eight-point spread. While it’s important to say that any win right now is a good win, it’s important to see the Wildcats finishing off their opponents rather than letting those teams hang around and sneak a couple of quick baskets in at the end of a game to steal a victory.
It may only be two games into the GLIAC season, but this finally looks like a Wildcat team that could be able to put the pieces together to compete for a conference championship and make a run at the NCAA tournament.
3. Football showed glimpses of promise
Under second year head football coach Kyle Nystrom, it’s hard to gauge just where the Wildcats are in terms of relevance in the GLIAC conference. NMU finished second to last but at times looked like a team that was just a few plays of way from finishing as an average middling team in the conference.
With the Wildcat all-time rushing recorder holder Jake Mayon departing from the team because of graduation, NMU is going to need to find the next competitor to jump in and fill in the offensive hole that is being left behind. There are four returning running backs on the roster looking to carry the torch that Mayon has passed off and three of those are freshman. The only sophomore of the group, Deandre Caldwell, rushed for 411 this season while scoring two touchdowns.
The biggest gripe against the Wildcats entering next season is a defensive unit that allowed 26.5 points-per-game and was susceptible to allowing big plays at untimely moments.
In order to finish higher in the conference, Nystrom has to figure out how to stop the bleeding on the defensive side of the ball. The offense showed signs of growth throughout the season but can’t be expected to carry the team, they’ll need help.