Mike Kohler does a lot of things on a soccer field that catch the eye of an observer.
He weaves through two, three or more opposing players and often with little difficulty. He scores goals, threads passes to teammates and rampages after the ball when the other team has it. He also does a lot of things that aren’t as easy to spot.
One of those things, he didn’t have to do too much of his first three years playing for North Penn’s boys’ soccer team. For his senior season however, Kohler knew he would have to be a leader.
For his exceptional play on the field and his leadership as part of a special senior group, Kohler has been picked as the Reporter’s Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
“There was a bigger leadership role for me and the rest of the captains,” Kohler said. “There was more responsibility put on us to set the tone. I think that as a team, we did a pretty nice job getting everyone together as a team and setting that tone in practice.”
District I is stocked with great high school soccer programs and the SOL Continental North Penn plays in is no different. Each year, the Knights would field a strong team but never seemed able to get over the hump, first in the conference with powerhouse CB East and then in districts, falling short of states. This year, the Knights felt like they had the group to break through.
North Penn had good seniors like Kohler, Noah Kwortnik, Nate Baxter, and more but would also be relying on younger guys, sophomores and even a freshman in Carter Houlihan. The seniors knew the young guys needed to feel welcomed and as much a part of the team’s success as anyone else. It was this way because that’s the way they were brought in.
North Penn won the Continental, placed third in District I and made the state quarterfinals, its best season in 12 years.
An annual tradition for the team is a preseason meal at Olive Garden. The catch is the seniors all dress up in goofy costumes and as Kohler put it, “make complete fools of ourselves” to break the ice.
“I remember as a freshman I was a little bit afraid of the older guys,” Kohler said. “It brings a neat aspect to the team knowing we’re all friends and I think it really helps us a lot.”
On the field, Kohler can pretty much do whatever he wants with the ball at his feet. He’s not the fastest or strongest guy out there, but he gets where he wants to and more often than not, makes the right play. He’s also quick to acknowledge what he does, is not done alone.
Last year, his first playing center midfield for the Knights, Kohler said he was hesitant to try and give advice or make suggestions to the older guys. He knew he couldn’t hesitate this year and felt much more confident talking not just to underclassmen, but his fellow seniors.
“In preseason we wouldn’t communicate for whatever reason and Coach (Paul) Duddy says I’ll make you guys sing at practice if that’s what it takes, we’re going to be a vocal team,” Kohler said. “That really hit home for us and we were able to start talking after that.”
“His work ethic is just beyond compare, it’s the same every day in practice,” Duddy said. “He’s soccer-smart, he knows what to do, he’s technically very good. He’s like a coach’s dream.”
His first two years, Kohler played mostly at forward or outside midfielder, where he said he was too skinny to be effective and often got pushed off the ball too easily. He put on some weight before his junior year and shifted into the middle where he could be a playmaker but also a two-way player.
The trade-off was that all the open space and time on the ball he had out wide was gone, so he had to get better at keeping possession but also moving the ball quickly. Kohler said playing centrally, he can’t see the entire field, so that communication with his teammates is vital. He also relishes the defensive aspect he carries should he be separated from the ball.
“I love playing defense, it’s one of the good parts about playing center mid,” Kohler said. “Now when I lost the ball, I had a chance to win it back.”
Of course, Kohler knew all the freedom he had offensively was thanks to the hard work of the two holding mids behind him, usually a combination of Houlihan, Nick Terchek and Jack Johnston.
“They were the reason I was able to get forward, to put it bluntly,” Kohler said. “If they weren’t so good defensively, I would not have had the freedom to do everything I was allowed by the coaches. I knew I was free to go forward because they would always be there to defend. I could not have asked for better center mids.”
Kohler said he owes a lot of credit and gratitude to Duddy and the assistant coaches. The coaches would play anyone who did the work to deserve minutes, regardless of class standing so the other guys on the field knew they all deserved to be out there. At the same time, the coaches held every guy accountable.
Their adjustments were also a huge part of the season, with Kohler saying North Penn was a better second half team thanks to things Duddy would notice and change. Just as important to Kohler was how Duddy helped his players grow as people.
“He sees things no player would ever see,” Kohler said. “The part that a lot of people don’t see is the morals he puts in all his players. If you’d yell at a ref, the next practice you’re gonna hear about it, if you’d curse, you’d hear about it. It’s good to have, because not a lot of coaches do that anymore.”
For all the great wins North Penn had this season, including one over nemesis CB East, Kohler said the team’s losses were the most pivotal because it made the guys come back the next day resolved to work harder. The two-year captain said what he wants the returning players to take from him and the other seniors is their relentless work ethic. In games where they aren’t the best team, working harder than the opponent has a way of leveling those things out.
Kohler’s scored many goals in his time at North Penn. His favorite came back in his sophomore season, an overtime winner in pouring rain against CB West in a district playoff game, just for all the implications around it. The senior isn’t sure where he’ll be going to school next year and still has a few visits to take, but he plans on playing at the next level.
Wherever he ends up, Mike Kohler is going to be a great addition.
“He’s magic on the ball,” Duddy said. “But on top of that, he’s always smiling. He’s happy to be playing, he’s happy to be a part of it and the other players all love him as a teammate.”