When the Kitsap Pumas soccer club ran possession drills this summer, the team’s two youngest players were often thrust into the middle of the circle: Gig Harbor High School 2017 grad Jack Sluys and Peninsula High School 2018 grad Keeton Heggerness.
Call it part of the initiation process.
“We’d be the ones filling up water bottles, going into the middle in drills and defending,” Heggerness said, with a laugh.
It was all in good fun, for the team’s rookies, both representing the Peninsula School District. Sluys, an 19-year-old center back, took a gap year and has been working on staying fit since last fall. He had originally intended on playing soccer at Western Washington University, but didn’t feel challenged enough in Bellingham.
After stepping back and reconsidering his options, he decided to wait a year before enrolling in college and playing another year of club soccer. Sluys sent his highlights to the coaching staff at Fordham University in New York City. He took an official visit in mid-October and received an official offer shortly thereafter. He committed in November and signed his national letter of intent of Feb. 1.
Sluys is opting out of the short drive from Gig Harbor to Bellingham and taking a more challenging route: Attending college on the other side of the country.
“It forces me to grow up more,” Sluys said. “I can’t just get in a car and come home. I have to stay, work through problems and figure things out.”
Playing for Kitsap — which competes in the National Premier Soccer League — has forced Sluys to grow up, also. The NPSL, commonly recognized as the fourth-tier professional soccer league in the U.S., has a mix of talented soccer players, including recent high school graduates, current college players and recent college graduates, many of whom played at big-time programs.
“The college game is strong, physical and fast-moving,” Sluys said. “To get tips, see firsthand players who are the next level and play with and against them is great. To just be able to take from them and learn from them is great, and hopefully I can take that into school.”
Even as one of the team’s youngest players, Sluys was a mainstay in the starting lineup, starting all but one of Kitsap’s games at center back this summer.
Heggerness, just 17 years old, recently finished his senior season at Peninsula High School and graduated, after starring for the Seattle Sounders Academy most of his high school career.
Heggerness debuted for the Pumas on June 20 against PACNW-OSA, as a substitute in the 60th minute. The forward did what he does best, seizing his opportunity and putting the ball in the back of the net, knocking home a cross from teammate Adama Kante in the 80th minute to seal the win for the Pumas.
“You can’t really ask for a better debut, to just come in and get the goal,” Heggerness said. “That’s what everyone dreams of. … I got some really positive feedback from everyone. All the players love the see the youngest kid get in there and score a goal.”
Heggerness, like Sluys, benefited from the experience of playing this summer as preparation for his collegiate career. Heggerness will be attending Chaminade University of Honolulu in the fall.
“It was a big step in my preparation,” he said. “A lot of the guys have been through it, done college, played at big schools. I got a taste for how physical it will be, how fast it will be. Just talking to different players about what you need to do to excel at the college level — I think it’ll be beneficial.”
Heggerness said he learned quite a bit this summer.
“I learned a couple tricks about how to use my body better, being of smaller stature,” he said. “The connections I built with some of the players was a lot of fun this summer.”
Heggerness and Sluys carpooled to training every day, and the two enjoyed getting to know each other over the course of the summer.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Sluys said. “We’re the two youngest players on the team and the only two teenagers on the team, so we get a lot of grief at training.”
Sluys was invited to train with the Seattle Sounders FC 2 team in July, before heading to college August 1. Heggerness heads to Hawaii in mid-August to begin training with his college team.