NJIT’s Men’s Soccer team has finished a historic performance this season. The season ended with the team winning the ASUN Conference Championship before being eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Providence College in their NCAA tournament debut. Overall, the team had a win percentage of 63.2% with a conference win percentage of 83.3%. Both of these are the highest win percentages NJIT’s Soccer team has seen.
NJIT’s success this year comes down to the quality of the team: ASUN named Rene White, a Redshirt Junior and forward on the team, Player of the Year; Freshman Samuel Reisgys as Goalkeeper of the Year; forward Alejandro Rabell as Freshman of the Year; and Coach Fernando Barboto as Coach of the Year. White is also NJIT’s all-time scoring leader with 34 points and he scored the second most points in the season of any Division One Men’s Soccer player with 16 goals. Accompanying him iaaas teammate Andrew Nino, a senior midfielder, who is NJIT’s career assist leader with 17 assists.
Thomas Radon, a junior center-midfielder, said that “What made this year different from the past few in my experience was how collected we were. Everyone believed in the same common goal, everyone knew what had to be done and everyone believed that we could accomplish what we set out to do. There were no individual egos that affected the team in a negative way.”
Nino attributed the team’s success to “a good sense of leadership within the team and a lot of younger guys who were willing to listen. I also think the coaches did a good job of listening to the players and we were definitely all on the same page.”
In the same vein, White said that “One big factor for us this season was that it was Coach Barboto’s fourth year in charge. That means for the first time since he’s been here, he recruited the entire team. Our entire lineup fit into his playing style and we worked well together. Another major factor was that the entire group had a team-first attitude. From top to bottom, everyone was there to play their part to make the team better. The group is so close and everybody just wanted to do what they could to help the team.”
By the time the Highlanders won the ASUN conference championship, they were ready to compete in the NCAA Tournament. “The mindset was no different than any other conference game we played in the past this season,” Radon said. “We go in wanting to win every single game, home or away.”
By the time we got to the conference playoffs we felt like we couldn’t lose,” said White. “Even when we went down 1-0 to FGCU in the ASUN final, I was fully expecting to come back and win it in the second half. Everything had gone our way over the past few games, and we felt like nothing was different about the final.”
That optimistic attitude carried over to the NCAA tournament,” White continued, “although we knew the odds were against us. We felt like we were in a place where we could give a good game to anybody in the NCAA. We played well against a very talented Providence side, and we left with our heads high after the loss. We were disappointed to lose but were so proud of the season we had.”
Statistically, NJIT outperformed expectations by a large margin. Last year, the team had a conference win percentage of 16.7% while winning 35.3% of games overall. Previously, the best season had been the 2016 season with a 58.3% conference win percentage and 55.6% overall win percentage.
Speaking on if NJIT’s performance was expected or if it should be treated as an outlier, Nino said “my class was a project that these past years we’ve been developing and our goal was to do what we did this year.”
White said that “We had a large senior class this season who was particularly motivated to win a trophy. We had a lot of talent returning from last year as well as a large freshman class who made a huge impact on the team. Between a large senior class who showed great leadership, and a lot of talent, our team had the tools we needed to have a good season. We had one of the top scoring offenses in the NCAA with so many different threats in our lineup and coming off the bench.”
“The atmosphere is so different in the team,” Radon said, “it makes you want to go out every single day and compete and train hard. This starts from the senior class all the way to the freshman class. The players that were brought in are quality competitors that will only help the program develop and keep getting better every year.”
Nino added that, “The stadium definitely helped a ton as well as the fans.”
Nino is of course referring to the brand new Lubetkin Field at Mal Simon Stadium that the Highlanders got to play on for the first time this season. Prior to the field’s opening, the Highlanders would take a shuttle to either Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School or Newark Bears Stadium, both of which are a half a mile off campus.
Radon said “Having a home field right on campus is something a lot of schools take for granted. The years we had to travel every day for practice, and every game was an away game, was challenging mentally. There were a lot of days where we didn’t want to do it and it was a hassle, but I think those days made us stronger and more appreciative of having a home field.
“I think we are a tough team to play at home,” Nino said, “the fans are loud. In terms of our conference, we are in a cold atmosphere. The training sessions are smoother, everything is better and easier.”
White said, “I truly believe NJIT has the best fans and the most school spirit in the ASUN. It was a blessing to be able to play in front of those fans for the first time in my four years. We were shown amazing support throughout the season, particularly in the conference tournament. Having our stadium packed for the ASUN final despite the freezing temperatures gave us a boost we needed to play our hardest for 90 minutes.”
White was given a lot of publicity throughout the season for being one of the biggest offensive threats in college soccer nationally, but White attributes his success to the whole team. “It turns out our offense was much improved, and I believe we would have scored a lot of goals with or without me. I got such great service from my teammates that I was able to spend most of the season hanging out in the box looking for space and waiting for a teammate to find me. As I was scoring a lot of goals, teams began marking me tighter which left more space for my teammates around the goal. With so many different offensive threats, this led to us scoring a lot of goals as a team.”
Though NJIT was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round, it does not look like this year will be a one-off. In a post-game press conference after the loss to Providence College, Coach Barboto said “I think we’ll come back just as strong, if not stronger. There’s not many teams in Division One that will be returning nine starters from a championship team, so we have a lot of work ahead of us but certainly a great foundation to build on.”
Photos by Simon Chen