“Trying to rock?” Francois Anderson asks when he walks into the EC suite across the hall from his own, pointing to the TV. It’s his way of asking if anyone wants to play a game of FIFA Soccer 12.
“I destroy people in FIFA,” Ronnie Shaban said, with a smug look on his face.
“Ronnie, you had one week where you were good, now you suck,” Will Young quipped.
Shaban triumphed the last time they played each other. But that was his only win in the last five attempts.
“Ronnie sucks at FIFA,” Anderson added.
“No one respects Francois at FIFA,” Shaban said.
As suggested by the conversation, for the senior class of the Columbia men’s soccer team, the sport is a big part of life off the field as well.
“I feel like so much of my interaction with these guys focuses around soccer,” Young said. “I mean, sure, we’re obviously friends far beyond the soccer field, but at the same time the majority of what I talk to these guys about is soccer. It’s why I’m here, and it’s been the focus of our lives for the last four years. It’s been more important than anything else and has kept us together through everything.”
‘I expected more’
In the summer of 2008, 10 new faces reported for men’s soccer preseason training at Baker Field. Of those 10, seven are still on the roster. In addition, one walked on to the team later that preseason. The eight seniors currently on the squad—Anderson, Young, Shaban, Mike Mazzullo, Jesse Vella, Nick Faber, Zach Glubiak, and Alex Aurrichio—make up the men’s soccer class of 2012, and the end of a memorable journey is in sight. (Shaban is a sports columnist for Spectator, and Glubiak is a deputy sports editor for Spectator.)
They have helped the program make giant strides—the season before they came to Morningside, the Lions went 0-7 in the Ivy League. The seniors have contributed to the improvement of the team every season. Now, they have a chance to do something truly special. The Lions currently sit at 3-2 in the Ivies with two games to play. Two wins, coupled with neither Brown nor Dartmouth winning both their final games, would be enough for the title, Columbia’s first in men’s soccer since 1993. These seniors have formed a core part of the squad since their arrival to Morningside Heights in 2008, and this weekend they host Harvard for their last Ivy League home game as Columbia Lions.
But it’s not time for sentiments just yet.
“I can’t really conceptualize this as the last home game,” Anderson said. “We have our eyes on the Ivy League prize. I’m going into this game thinking it’s another Ivy League game we need to win on the way to the title.”
They make up the largest men’s soccer class since before they got here, and it is the biggest game of their college careers. Even though Columbia is in the race for the Ivy title, the seniors aren’t all content.
“I expected more, in all honesty,” Young said. “I think this program has been our class—with some additions of key players from other classes, but the core of this team has been from our grade for a long time. So I assumed that when we got to be juniors and seniors it would be us very clearly at the top of the Ivy League. We’re doing well, but that hasn’t quite happened.”
“I don’t think we came here expecting to be like 0-7,” Mazzullo, the captain of the team, said. “We all came here to win. If we finish fourth now, none of us will be happy—the point is to win.”
‘A better place than they found it’
Shaban, Anderson, and Young were the first three to commit to Columbia, around October of 2007. The Light Blue had just lost to Penn, and finished with three wins on the year. Furthermore, the Lions hadn’t won an Ivy fixture since 2005. That changed in 2008.
The first home game for this senior class was against No. 6 UC Santa Barbara, and six of them started the clash which the Lions won 3-1. In scorching heat, Bayo Adafin, CC ’11, grabbed a hat-trick, but the rookies played more than their part with Anderson and Aurrichio tallying assists.
Times have changed since then. The classes that were above them are all gone. Leo Chappel, head coach of the Lions until the end of the 2008 season, also found new pastures. The only member on the staff that brought these players to Columbia who is still around is Tommy McMenemy, CC ’04, the Lions’ current assistant coach.
“They put themselves in a position now with two weeks left in the season that within reason, destiny is in our own hands,” McMenemy said. “It’s easy to look at that and put it down to a good season, but it’s a reward for them for making the decision early in the career to leave the program in a better place than they found it. The leadership within the group is phenomenal, and they’ve helped turn the program around.”
Bonds form early
McMenemy understands that it was the coming together of characters that had a large part to play for the current crop of seniors.
“The truth is there was an element of luck,” McMenemy continued. “These guys just have a lot of fun together. When I was in school and the season ended, you wanted to spend time with other people. That’s not the case for them—they’re just a tight group and a perfect blend of personalities. I don’t know the last time eight guys graduated in a class, and every single one of them has contributed—it’s phenomenal.”
The individuals that came together, however, are not all similar personalities.
“We’re a very different set of characters but we’ve been very compatible over the years,” said Faber, who has taken a class with every other senior on the team.
“Everyone’s light-hearted though and cares for each other,” Vella said. “I’ve formed great friendships with every single one of them and we’ve always helped each other out in different circumstances.”
The compatibility wasn’t a given, by any means. For instance, Aurrichio is also on the Columbia baseball team, and spends the spring season largely on the diamond.
“It definitely hurts the dynamic not being around all year, and only being there for the fall,” he said. “I don’t get to see these guys in the spring nearly as much as I’d like to.”
Their academic interests are diverse, with majors ranging from psychology to earth and environmental engineering. They also come from a variety of places. Faber is from Germany, Anderson is from Jamaica, Shaban and Glubiak are from Virginia, Young is Californian, while Vella, Aurrichio, and Mazzullo hail from the Empire State.
A large part of their compatibility can be attributed to their tremendous collective sense of humor, and their manner of constantly being able to laugh with each other. They’re a very tight-knit group, and Peter Morice, who is no longer on the team, has always remained a part of the unit. Whether it’s teasing Faber, a German, for being Swiss because he was born there, giving Shaban, who never puts his fork down, a hard time for eating his sixth dinner of the night, making fun of Young, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of soccer, for constantly being lost, or criticizing Mazzullo for his music taste or being sneaky in his ways, there’s a camaraderie that allows them to have fun in whatever they’re doing.
For some, the bonding started before they checked into Carman Hall.
“Ronnie and I were at a tournament in the spring of our senior year,” Glubiak said. “And our parents, I don’t know how they found each other, but they set up a play date. They introduced us and stepped back, ‘Are they going to like each other?’”
In addition, Faber and Anderson went to high school in Connecticut together, Faber and Mazzullo played on the same Olympic Development Program youth team, as did Vella and Shaban. However, there is another pre-Columbia rendezvous that stands out above the rest.
“I actually played against Jesse three times in the New York State Cup final,” Mazzullo said. “One of the times we were playing against each other, Jesse broke my best friend’s collar bone. Unintentionally, he just kind of shrugged him off. Obviously, he was my boy so the next tackle I cleaned Jesse out—I really cleaned him out. It was a straight yellow, should have been red. I actually intended to hurt him.”
“After the game, Jesse comes over and says ‘good game’ but I didn’t want to look at him,” Mazzullo continued. “He then says, ‘Oh by the way, I’ll see you at Columbia in a couple weeks. I’m going to try for the team.’ I couldn’t believe it, what a terrible start to the relationship. I don’t think he remembers it.”
Another aspect of the compatibility has been their living situations. Mazzullo and Aurrichio, Faber and Anderson, and Glubiak and Young, all shared doubles for their first three years. Shaban and Vella were suitemates freshman year, before rooming together for the next two. Now, Anderson and Vella live together, while Faber, Shaban, Young, Glubiak, and Mazzullo are across the hall from them in a larger suite.
“Before, when Leo was asking me who I wanted to room with, I said I really didn’t care because you don’t want to pick someone and hope it works out,” Shaban said. “So I said ‘anybody, just no goalkeepers’. I’m pretty sure it would have been Zach, because he put the local guys together. So me and Glubes [Glubiak] both being from Virginia would have been together, apart from because I said no goalkeepers because they smell. And it’s funny because my best friend now is probably Glubiak.”
Glubiak clarified that goalkeeper’s gloves smell terrible. His eventual roommate, Young, said he was not concerned because he has his own odor issues.
Things could go horribly wrong with five guys living together, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“I think we’ve divided the responsibilities well,” Young said. “Some people clean more than others, some do more dishes—everyone contributes.”
Shaban quickly disagreed.
“Youngy needs to clean more,” he said, with a smirk.
A unified core
The friendships, however, extended beyond those in their class.
“We were always really close with the class above us,” Faber said. “We lived with them one year in McBain so we were really close with that class.”
It’s no coincidence that the class of 2011 was Chappel’s first recruiting class.
“They were the first ones with the mind-set that this program is changing and they wanted to be a part of it,” Shaban said. “So we had similar mind-sets with similar goals, just different years.”
Adafin, whose exploits against Santa Barbara marked the first win for the current seniors, was one of those with the changed mind-set.
“I think they’re good guys and I think they actually helped us build a good core,” he said. “They showed a lot of that last year on and off the field as well about who they are and what they bring to the team. They led Columbia to a new place this year that we haven’t gone to in a long time so I think that shows a lot of character.”
However, there was a changing of the guard with Chappel’s departure. Head coach Kevin Anderson came to Morningside Heights in the spring of 2009, and has been at the helm ever since.
“They were second-semester first-year students when I got here and it was a great time and a great opportunity for me,” Anderson said. “I hope that as they’ve gone through their journey here on a team, and we’ve gone with them, I hope they’ve grown in all the ways that we as coaches would want them to grow. Where we are today is a testament to them.”
Anderson also paid tribute to the work of another senior: Michael Kurish, CC ’12, the manager of the team.
“A lot of the players’ development is done on video, and that’s a big component,” he said. “I’m very thankful to him because that video helps us with development, coaching, and recruitment, and he’s been a very big part of that.”
Soon after soccer season is done, the countdown to graduation will be on the horizon. Things will certainly be different.
“Will Young will probably get a commentary job—radio or maybe TV,” Francois Anderson said. “He’d be very good. And Glubiak for president.”
“Francois is going to have to sort out his green card,” Shaban said. “Faber, too.”
However, some things will remain the same.
“Mazz will still be holding down the block,” Anderson added.
Glubiak responded as a president would.
“I never could have imagined that I would leave college with some of my closest friends from places like Jamaica, Germany, and California,” Glubiak said. “But soccer brought this group here, kept us all together, and, I think, will keep us together in the future. That’s been the coolest part of the process. And, possibly winning an Ivy championship—which would be pretty cool too.”
“We all talk about winning an Ivy League championship,” Young said. “And I feel like I would be interested in doing that and I hope I can do that, but more importantly for me is for us to make the NCAA tournament. At this point we probably have to win Ivies to do it, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Another one of Young’s goals was the accomplishment of beating every team in the Ivy League. That’s something the team achieved with its win over Yale this past weekend. The goal on the table now, though, will be the focus moving forward, starting with the game against Harvard on Saturday. Even for Aurrichio, who has a full season of baseball coming up in the spring, this game marks the end of a journey.
“I haven’t looked ahead into the spring just yet,” he said. “Right now, the only thing I’ve thought about is week to week. I’m playing it like it’s the end. I’m not playing it like ‘well whatever happens, happens, I have another opportunity.’ I don’t look at it like that. This is a totally different animal, and it’s my last opportunity to finish changing a program that I swore I would do my best to do. I’m looking at it like this is the end. This is the end for me too. It’s either go hard or go home.”
Shaban, a strong believer in the importance of the first time, hopes the game brings back memories of that victory against Santa Barbara.
“Hopefully this is as good as our first home game,” he said. “For me that’s our most memorable game. It would be nice if we came full-circle.”