Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
Berry’s men’s soccer team began conference play last Saturday by defeating defending champions Centre College. This came after a strong start to the season, with two wins and a tie in their opening three games.
Speaking about those opening games prior to the matchup with Centre, Richard Vardy, men’s soccer head coach, said they had helped set the team up for a successful campaign.
“Against Piedmont, who is a good team having a good season, we played really well,” Vardy said. “I think that helped give the team a sense of who they are this year; they’re an energetic bunch of guys, a lot of good team chemistry going, and it gave us a sense of what our style of play and our team will look like this year, so it’s been good progress from game to game to game. And obviously winning two of those games just helps us with the confidence.”
Despite this early momentum, traveling to Centre for the team’s first Southern Athletic Association (SAA) game of the season remained a sizable challenge. Not only has Centre won three of the last four conference titles, including last season’s championship, but going into last Saturday’s game Berry had failed to beat them since 2015. As a result, the win was significant for the team’s confidence, according to sophomore center-back Chris Barbieri.
“That’s huge,” Barbieri said. “Going into the season, we lost Jake Williamson who scored a whole bunch of goals for us last season, so we didn’t know how good we were going to be, but to go out there, play at their place and come out with a win, it’s a lot of confidence for us. We know what we can do, we know we can score, we can defend and if we just carry that throughout the season we’ll be good.”
Another contributor to the team’s confidence comes from their time spent training in the fall, according to junior midfielder Janson Witcher, when they were one of only a few teams able to do so.
“We were blessed, because we were one of the only schools in our conference to actually be able to train in the fall, so we got to bond quicker with our freshmen, become a tighter knit team in the fall,” Witcher said. “So we were better prepared in the spring to play together, so I think we were more blessed than anything with COVID.”
That time spent bonding and learning to play together could prove vital for what is a young team, with 13 out of 22 players currently underclassmen, eight of them freshmen. With the team facing a few injury concerns to start off the season, Witcher said it was vital for those younger players to step up.
“It’s been hard a little bit, but we have a great freshman class that comes in and fills the spot,” Witcher said. “When you have an injury it’s just the next man up and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win the game.”
Vardy said the number of injuries has been frustrating at times, as it adds to the uncertainties the team has been facing for months now with COVID-19, but everyone is taking it one day at a time and staying positive according to him. Vardy also said he appreciated the work put in by the training and medical staff, who have not only been helping his players, but those of all 21 of Berry’s varsity teams competing this semester.
As with other sports, the soccer season will look different due to COVID-19 this semester, with significantly less non-conference games being played. Vardy said this provided a new obstacle, as fewer games means fewer opportunities for him and his staff to scout their opposition.
“It provides some challenges, just because usually we go in and we know a little bit about our opponents,” Vardy said. “It just kind of reinforces the fact that all we can do is control our performance and the things we can do, and so we can prepare our guys to meet a couple different things that might come up, but at the end of the day we’re just a little bit blind in that sense. Usually you have a good idea, you try and get the guys prepared and you give them a good scouting report, this season we’re just focusing on all the things we can focus on and just trying to prepare the guys well, but that’s the big difference, these unknown factors that go into it.”
However, Vardy said that this works both ways, as their rivals would know less about them as well, so he is not overly concerned about it.
Barbieri said his biggest takeaway from the decrease in game opportunities was that every one of them would count that little bit more.
“Every day means that much more,” Barbieri said. “We realize we have a limited amount of games, we want to go out there, win every one, and each one’s going to be a fight. Each one’s a conference game, so they all mean something and that just makes us want to train harder, play harder, work out more and just do everything we can to get ready for these games
Because of the uncertainties and unusual conditions brought about by COVID-19, Vardy said the team’s main focus this semester is simply to stay healthy and play as many games as possible. However, that does not mean they do not have high expectations in terms of results in what should be a competitive season, according to him.
“I think we do feel as though we can have a good push in the conference this year, but I also know the other teams in the conference are going to be strong, the conference itself has been getting deeper and deeper so there’s no weak teams anymore,” Vardy said. “I think every game is going to be a good competitive battle and on any given day any team can win.”
Witcher agreed with his coach that staying healthy and growing as a team would be the priority, but also said the team was in it to win.
“I definitely want us to get a conference title,” Witcher said. “We’ve been without one for a while now, but we’ve always been contending. We really want to do well in the season and then hopefully win the tournament as well.”
Men’s soccer’s next game will see them host Hendrix College on March 26, at 7:30 p.m.