Sampson, Pumas start off on the right foot, help NKSC

POULSBO - Saturday's Kitsap Soccer Club win over the Tacoma Stars was not only significant for the upstart Pumas program, but also carried a great deal of weight for the North Kitsap Soccer Club and Poulsbo's Zach Sampson.

The NK Soccer Club, which lost a $16,000-plus fundraiser this year when it canceled Viking Cup, grossed more than $3,700 from the game, thanks to the more than 300 soccer fans who filled the North Kitsap Stadium bleachers and bought concessions throughout the event.

"It was a wonderful experience," said Jim Bilbao, vice president of publicity and fundraising for NKSC, and chief sponsor of the event. "There was not a hiccup, not an anxiety about the whole thing."

Sampson, an 18-year-old senior at North Kitsap High School, played most of the second half of the Pumas' preseason opener after signing with the club just one day prior.

"It's just a great opportunity," Sampson said of the signing. "I feel comfortable knowing that I've signed with them and I feel more a part of the team than just being that practice player. It's an experience I've never had, and I'm loving every minute of it."

Sampson, who was until last week playing amateur soccer with the Crossfire premier club in Seattle, will not be eligible to compete at the collegiate level in the sport as a result of signing to play for pay with the Pumas. Sampson has also been a standout kicker for the Viking football team, and is still qualified to play on the college gridiron if he so chooses, since going pro in one sport does not affect eligibility in another. He said part of the reason why his signing with the Pumas came at the last minute was that originally there was some uncertainty as to whether the club wanted to contract him and take away his ability to play soccer at the university level.

"I just told them, 'College soccer isn't my interest, I want to play on this team,'" Sampson said. "I showed them that I was dedicated and I had the mental energy."

Warming up for Saturday's match, Sampson admitted some jitters, but said he felt ready to join the Pumas' ranks and take the field.

"I'm feeling a little nervous, just because I'm playing in front of my hometown, but otherwise I'm feeling really good," he said before the game.

Sampson also noted the difference in environment as compared to his Crossfire matches.

"It's just a lot more exciting playing in my hometown on a semi-professional team."

Early in the game, as streams of fans continued to flow into the stadium, Pumas midfielder Mark Conrad was called for a handball inside his own penalty box, which set up a penalty kick for the Stars. Tacoma capitalized easily, but Conrad just minutes later made up for his error by assisting Matt Friesen on the Pumas' first goal. Friesen positioned himself just inside the Stars' goal box, trapped Conrad's pass, and on the next touch sent the ball into the back of the net. Several minutes later, Friesen struck again, this time from about 20 yards out, rocketing a low-flying shot that he squeezed between the keeper and the left post. By halftime, the score remained 2-1 in favor of the home team.

Sixteen minutes into the second half, with the score holding steady at 2-1, Sampson made his first appearance on the pitch, taking Friesen's place at left forward. Right away, fellow forward William Njamen, a 20-year-old recruit from Cameroon, streaked down the left side and laced a shot across the front of the goal, sending the ball just out of reach of Sampson's foot and out of bounds. Sampson and his teammates had a few more close calls in the remaining minutes of the game, as did Tacoma, but ultimately the contest wrapped up without any further scoring.

"I felt pretty good," Sampson said after the game. "It's a whole different intensity," he added. "Much higher, more physical," than the Crossfire and high school games.

Sampson also said he was impressed with the turnout of fans.

"I didn't think it would be that many people just for a preseason game," he said. "The crowd and the fans and players - it's all great atmosphere."

The NK Soccer Club has received a donation of $1,000 from the estate of Ronald Alnes, in addition to the funds raised by the Pumas match, but is still searching for additional monies after the loss of this year's Viking Cup.

"We will continue to look for other means to raise funds for the club, including bringing Viking Cup back in 2010, as we try to keep recreational and competitive soccer affordable for kids in North Kitsap," said NKSC treasurer Michelle Lehmann.

Sampson and the Pumas face off in their final preseason match Saturday against Seattle Pacific University at South Kitsap High School at 4:30 p.m.

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