On Wednesday Sept. 16, the NJIT Men’s Soccer team was honored at the Lubetkin Field with the distribution of ASUN championship rings to each player. After a long period apart in quarantine, this finally marked the official end to one of the most remarkable stories in the history of Highlander sports. The team entered the Fall 2019 season with a previous win record of less than 35%. Additionally, no NJIT sport had reached the NCAA championship since the university attained Division I status in 2006. However, they exited as ASUN champions and broke both the Individual Score Record and Individual Assist Record for the university. For a school more accustomed to boasting its ROI than its athletics teams, the level of excitement on campus last season was unmatched. Though they were unsuccessful in their first NCAA matchup against Providence, 2019 still marked one of the most significant years in NJIT sports history.
Lenny Kaplan, the Director of Athletics, opened the ceremony with a speech thanking the athletes, coaches and faculty that made the victory possible before expressing his hope that the success may continue into the future as NJIT transfers from ASUN to the America East Conference. This was followed by President Bloom, echoing similar sentiments while also focusing on the work of families in supporting the players and the team’s ability to maintain a strong academic standing in addition to their enviable athletic record.
The ceremony was then directed towards honoring the achievements of the players that season. Following the broadcast of a highlights reel, the players were brought up one-by-one to receive their championship rings and a posed photo with President Bloom and Lenny Kaplan.
Unfortunately, with the threat of COVID-19 looming overhead, many out-of-state and international players were unable to attend. This included the very noticeable exception of Regsan Watkins of South Africa, who was named the Finals MVP last year due to his game-changing score in the 86th minute of the Florida Gulf Coast game that sent NJIT to the championships.
Nicholas Kozdron, third year Biomedical Engineering student, expressed the sentiment of the team: “many of our teammates were home due to the pandemic. Of course, we would want them around. as the team behaves more like a bunch of brothers. We try to keep in touch with them as much as possible in order to make sure we still maintain that good relationship, even though they aren’t physically present here.”
And, as with most things this year, it seems that this event has been affected greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic. In both the speeches by President Bloom and Lenny Kaplan attention was brought to the changes that needed to be made to the ceremony to ensure that student safety was maintained. This has also resulted in the soccer season being moved into the spring for this year as well as some notable changes to the way that training is being conducted.
But the members of the team seem quite confident in the management of NJIT athletics with Paul Kondratowicz, freshman Electrical and Electronics student, pressing the point that “obviously the guys are being more cautious this year. As we’ve begun training, there [have] been constant temperature checks, sanitizing of hands and gear, social distancing and even wearing masks while training. We all know these aren’t ideal conditions, especially since our sport is so physically demanding. However, we know we have a responsibility to keep each other safe. Ultimately, we care about each other’s safety more than anything else, so we know we have to do our part.”
The attention of the ceremony was also turned to the history of the soccer program. In addition to this spectacular victory, the soccer program has been one of NJIT’s most successful for quite some time. This began with the NAIA championship victory of the Newark College of Engineering in the 1960s, and continued with the inclusion of NJIT alumnus Hernan Borja (’80) in the All-American soccer team in the 1980s. Last year’s success set itself firmly among the soccer team’s continually expanding potential for Highlander athletics.
It is at this point that the team captains began to give their own speeches. There seemed to be two common points in the words spoken by Captains Rene White (senior Business major) and Juan Zepata (’20 alumnus, Business). One was the tremendous work that was done by their coach Fernando Barboto into transforming the team into the state it is today. The other was their shared hope for NJIT soccer in the future, that the progress made in Barboto’s past four years could be continued to reach greater heights.
When Coach Barboto came up to give his speech, one key phrase stuck out as a tenet of the team philosophy, “Believe in great.” Going so far as to inscribe the phrase into their rings, Barboto credits this belief among both the players and all those on campus with the success of the team, and it seems that many of his players agree. In his post-ceremony interview Rene White spoke about receiving bracelets with the same phrase inscribed after a dry spell early in the season and states “I’m not very superstitious but soon after we got these bracelets we started winning.”
And with this philosophy as their key, many of the players agree with their captains that the future is something to be hopeful for, such as Kondratowicz, who states that “we know we have to believe in ourselves, because this team definitely has the talent to bring home another championship.”
Despite the increased challenge that might be posed by the move to the America East Conference, members of the team, like Nick Kozdron, hope to embrace that challenge. “This change will help tremendously in having future success. We cannot settle for what we have, we need to compete and strive for more.”
Thomas Radon, a senior Business major, summed it up quite succinctly in his post-ceremony interview: “Whatever is thrown at us, we’re gonna try and win that title.”
Whether these predictions will be fulfilled will remain unknown until soccer returns this Spring. However, you can be sure that this year’s team will have the support of the entire school behind them.
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