Kitsap Pumas reflect on memorable season

It started with tryouts in the snow and ended with a questionable, game-costing call on the burnt plains of Texas.

Etched within the inaugural story of the Kitsap Pumas — the county’s first fully professional soccer franchise — are tales of surprise, setback and success in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League.

There was the first home game at Bremerton Memorial Stadium, when more than 2,000 fans filed through the gates to watch their new club face the Tacoma Tide.

There was the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, when the PDL Pumas went toe-to-toe with the Portland Timbers of USL Division I before allowing two late goals and falling 3-0.

There was the PDL Northwest Division regular-season championship, which the Pumas secured with a Western Conference-best 12-1-3 record.

And the first-ever home playoff victory against the Seattle Wolves, propelling the Pumas to the PDL quarterfinals, where only a goal off a free kick two minutes into added time ended the season.

“For us, we built something out of scratch 10 months ago,” said executive director Ben Pecora. “You talk about a monumental task. I don’t think I’ve grasped what we’ve accomplished, to be honest.”

“There may have been a degree of skepticism when we first started, as to whether we could do it or not. It was all kind of smoke and mirrors,” added owner Robin Waite, who brought professional soccer to Kitsap last September.

The Pumas were eliminated from the PDL playoffs with a 2-1 quarterfinals loss to the Ventura County (Calif.) Fusion last week at the Texas A&M International University Soccer Complex in Laredo.

After Jesse Wheelock of the Pumas was flagged for a foul just outside the penalty box with the score tied 1-1 in stoppage time, Rodrigo Lopez sent a free kick into the goal from 18 yards out to win the game for the Fusion and end the Pumas’ season.

The Pumas had eight shots on goal to Ventura’s 11 and outshot the Fusion 13 to 11 overall. The Fusion went on to beat the Bradenton (Fla.) Academics 6-1 in the semifinals to advance to the championships game, which is tomorrow.

“ ... We really belonged to be in the final itself,” Waite said. “We were every bit as good as Ventura, better if you believe some of the unbiased people who were involved in the game. And if you believe the biased people, then we were far better.”

Despite the premature ending, both Waite and Pecora are calling the Pumas’ inaugural season a success.

The Pumas plucked five players — Jesse Wheelock, Kyle Johnson, Taylor Hyde, Zack Sampson and Stephen Mohn — out of a preseason tryout in February that drew about 90.

With coach John Wedge preaching a blue-collar, workmanlike approach to the game, the Pumas pieced together a roster that included local and international talent. Most of the players, however, had little-to-no professional experience.

“The fact that we’re built pretty much on solid, late-blooming D-II, D-III players, domestic players, it speaks a lot to what this team is all about,” Pecora said. “Some of (the players) had been overlooked so they were hungry.”

There also was a snowstorm during one of the February tryouts, but that didn’t stop the coaches from finding talent.

"We didn’t know whether (the snow) was a harbinger of good things or bad things to come,” Waite quipped. “Who would have thought, after that initial tryout, that we would wind up in the final eight of the PDL championship?”

The success on the field spilled off the field as well, with the club launching a countywide youth initiative that has included summer camps in Tracyton and Poulsbo. The initiative, Pecora and Waite said, will continue to grow as the franchise continues to gain legitimacy.

Attendance figures were near the top of the PDL, with Pecora estimating the club averaged between 1,000 and 1,200 fans per game. The single-game high was for the playoff game against Seattle, when 2,328 turned out. Waite’s preseason goal was to draw a lofty 3,000 fans per game.

“Soccer is still not a ‘Big 3’ sport yet,” Waite said, adding the key to boosting attendance is to show recreational players — or casual fans — there’s something to learn from watching the game live. “It’s converting those people into saying, ‘OK, maybe I can learn something, maybe I can help my game by going to one of their games.’”

Every player and coach on the Pumas’ 2009 roster was signed prior to the season to a one-year contract with a club option for a second year. That means some of the players, inevitably, won’t return next season. Pecora and Waite are conducting exit interviews, assessing each player and coach on an individual basis to determine how or if they can help the club improve in 2010.

“Every player is under evaluation right now. We’ve got a pretty solid nucleus and have the potential to be better next year,” Pecora said. “It’s like taking a car apart — cleaning it up, shining it up, replacing the parts and building it back up.”

Between now and kickoff for the 2010 campaign, Waite and Pecora will focus on assembling a championship-caliber roster while continuing to reach out to the community to spread the soccer word.

Among the primary to-dos, Waite said, is to establish momentum in a bid process that would bring the PDL quarterfinals to Kitsap next season. Laredo has hosted the quarterfinals five years running, due in large part to the fact no franchise has challenged for the bid.

Four teams would travel to Kitsap if the Pumas won the bid for the quarterfinals, something Waite said would have a positive impact on the county’s economic climate.

“It’s going to take financing from us, it’s going to take it from local agencies, hotels, restaurants — everybody pitching in to make it happen, because it’s good for Kitsap.”

The club has yet to open sales for 2010 season tickets, but Pecora said a “Pumas Moms Night” is in the works and other announcements are to come.

“We need to tell to the people of Kitsap, ‘You’re now part of something that goes around the globe. It may not be a strong signal when it gets into the outer reaches, but people know what a Kitsap is. A year ago, the league didn’t know what Kitsap was.’”

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