Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
Men’s soccer defeated Centre College 2-1 in double overtime to claim the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) championship on Sunday, the team’s first title since 2014. The Vikings entered the tournament as number two seed in the wake of a strong regular season.
Men’s soccer head coach Richard Vardy said the team’s success was the culmination of months of hard work.
“It feels as though we’ve reached our potential, and it just feels good,” Vardy said. “I think we’ve achieved a lot and we deserve what we got, so I’m proud of that. I’m proud of how the guys have been, not just yesterday and the weekend, but over the past eight months.”
Vardy added that his team’s consistency and attitude were also key factors.
“I think we’re always a competitive team and I think every single game this year we played, every practice we had, really, was consistent,” Vardy said. “We were able to practice from the first of September, which not every school was, and I think we’ve been training the whole time at a high level. And when the games started, we’ve been playing the games not always perfect, but with an extremely high level of intensity and a good competitive nature, and I think we’ve been the better team in every game we played this year, so I think we deserve what we got. It wasn’t always perfect and we lacked a little bit here and there, but I think we were the better team, because we trained in a good manner and we approached every single game with a good, positive attitude.”
For senior midfielder Jerry Cabrera, this dedication and hard work all started with the team chemistry.
“Since the beginning of this season, including last semester, we’ve always been super close-knit, we’ve always been there for each other and joking around,” Cabrera said. “It was just one big collective family, and at the end it really showed on the field because we were always there and fighting for each other every minute.”
Leading up to the SAA tournament, Berry had a near-perfect record, losing only one regular season game. That loss, however, suffered in overtime to Birmingham Southern College (BSC) on the final match day, saw the Vikings miss out on the regular season title. Vardy said losing that game was one of the hardest moments in his time at Berry.
“That was really devastating,” Vardy said. “I’ve been coaching at Berry since 1998 and I can’t think of a loss that we’ve had that was as morally devastating as losing to Birmingham that game,” Vardy said. “You shouldn’t let sports sometimes dictate your emotions so much, but that was a really, really tough one. We’ve lost games before, we’ll lose games again, but we felt as though we were the better team, we just didn’t play great on the night, we didn’t take our chances, the luck wasn’t with us. It is what it is, but it really was devastating.”
Freshman winger Tracy Moon said the loss was painful, but that he believes it also helped the team come back stronger.
“After the loss to BSC in overtime, it was obviously a terrible feeling,” Moon said. “The whole team was sad, the bus ride back was quiet, wasn’t a fun bus ride. It allowed us to really reflect on what we did wrong, but, more importantly, what we could improve on. So we evaluated what we did wrong, we fixed it and we came back out on top in the end.”
Cabrera agreed with his teammate, saying it gave the team the impetus they needed to win the tournament.
“Looking back at it, I think it was something that some teams need, that little bit of reality and controversy,” Cabrera said. “Between that Sunday to Friday, I think we had three sessions and you could tell in the locker room and on the pitch that everyone was there giving 110% just to make sure that we didn’t see each other beaten up and sad about it, and we were really putting in a lot of extra effort. It was really nice to see, and that’s why I like to think that, although that was the one regret, losing that game and not having the season, I think it was super necessary for us later on to dig deep and fight, especially in a double overtime game against a really good team
Another silver lining for Cabrera was that the loss, and subsequent seeding, meant Berry faced off with Oglethorpe University in the semi-finals. After Oglethorpe eliminated Berry at that same stage in Cabrera’s previous three seasons, he said it felt extra special to finally get revenge.
“If we hadn’t lost that, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get our revenge for the last three years,” Cabrera said. “So I think everything fell into place, it made it that much sweeter. My coaches and Josh [Pruett, the team’s other senior], we all hugged it out, we said ‘we did it, we’re halfway there, let’s go,’ and everything was perfect.”
In the championship game, Berry went behind after twenty-five minutes, but pulled things level a few minutes into the second half. As the game remained level and things went into overtime, Moon said the team’s experience from the previous week gave them added motivation.
“We had it in the back of our head that we can’t let what happened last week happen this week, and that gave us that extra motivation that Centre didn’t have,” Moon said. “We didn’t want to experience that same loss feeling we had the week before, so we came out and did what we had to do. We knew we had the skill, the upper hand to win it in overtime.”
Vardy said the entire season prepared them for that moment, as this was not the first close game his team had. He also said he was especially proud of their success given that the two teams they defeated in the tournament, Oglethorpe and Centre, have been the two dominant teams in the SAA the past few years.
“Every game was close, it was just having a little something extra to get you over the line,” Vardy said. “I think we had that a lot this year and that just comes down to ability, but it comes down to attitude as well. It was close run, every game was, so beating those two teams is special because they’ve been the elite teams in the conference for a few years and they will be down the road too, so this year was just our year.”
With five minutes left, freshman forward Nathan Carlson scored following a corner kick, giving Berry the win. The goal originally appeared to have been cleared off the line, but after a few seconds the referee gave it, sending Berry players into wild celebrations. But while his teammates all ran to the corner flag with the goal scorer, Cabrera said he stayed exactly where he was as emotion overtook him.
“I’ve had two season injuries, my biggest one was last season and I had to be there on the sidelines, watching us lose last conference tournament, and it’s been a really big process coming back from that,” Cabrera said. “So everybody went to celebrate, and I, instead of doing that, broke down and started crying, because it was a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears that was put into this, especially the last three years. Josh and I are the only seniors and everybody went to celebrate and it was just him and I, finally doing it, and it was a really nice moment, it was a dream come true, something you visualize. I visualized last summer when I was in rehab and to see it come true, I was overwhelmed.”
Cabrera was subsequently named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), an accolade he said he was keen to share with everybody who helped him during his recovery.
“I never thought of the MVP title, and when I got it, it was nice to see some hard work pay off, and it was as much my trophy as everyone else’s, because they really helped me through rehab and they were there the whole time and I couldn’t have done it without them,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera was not the only one to be awarded, as several other players received conference recognition. Moon won Conference Newcomer of the Year, while senior defender Josh Pruett was named the SAA Defensive Player of the Year. Pruett, Cabrera, Carlson and freshman goalkeeper Jose Palacios all received first-team recognition as well, while sophomore defenders Chris Barbieri and Michael Carboni earned second-team recognition and junior forward Zachary Ernst and sophomore midfielder Henry Asbill both received honorable mentions.
With several lowerclassmen receiving awards and contributing to the team’s success this season, Moon said he is now optimistic for future seasons.
“That tells us we have some quality players,” Moon said. “We have a young team; this isn’t the only year, necessarily, that we have the chance of winning the championship. We can do it next year, we can do it the year after, and it tells us we got the quality to go out there and do it again.”
Vardy agreed that the future is looking bright, though he knows Berry’s opponents will be back as strong as ever next season.
“We had a lot of people step up this year, the freshmen all played well, we had some returning guys who weren’t stars last year that were starting,” Vardy said. “We’re losing two guys from the starting team right now, Jerry and Josh, and that’ll be a big loss, but we’re bringing in some nice new players. But again, it’ll be very competitive. I know Centre, Oglethorpe, Rhodes, Birmingham, they’re all going to bring in new good players, so it’s going to be more of the same and more close games. But we have a good team spirit and good belief, and we really do just one game at a time. I know it’s cliché, but we didn’t look beyond anything, we won’t look beyond games.”
Cabrera said the team’s success was also a great way to end a challenging year.
“I just think it was perfect, especially in the midst of COVID,” Cabrera said. “The beginning of the season we had a lot of injuries going into it, I was still iffy, we had another guy who tore his ACL as well. It was something that made such a weird season just so nice. It turned everything around in the midst of all this negativity. We really pulled it out and it’s something that keeps a smile on our face during these hard times. It’s awesome.”