Saint 4 Years, Saint 4 Life - Part 1
By Mani Tafari
|Mani as a high school senior.|
Here I was the first night of preseason at the University gymnasium for our first night of testing for the men’s soccer team at St. Lawrence University. It was late summer of 1997 and Biggie’s “More Money More Problems” highlighted the summer soundtrack. The mood in the weight room was much less jubilant as one by one players on the team did not meet the requirement of lifting their body weight 10 times.
The team did not do well. Coach was not happy, and he made us all aware of this fact. Special ire was directed at the returning players who knew what to expect and failed to do the necessary preparation.
I had personally done quite poorly on the bench press test. In fact, my first ever attempt at a bench press was done during testing. I went to bed that night thinking that I was now a college soccer player, a dream come true. The next day testing would continue, and I would have a chance to impress my new coach and teammates and show them what I could do.
The first full day of preseason required the 1997 Saints to complete testing and play in the first scrimmage of the year.
First up was the 40-yard dash. I was up for this one. Speed had always been a big part of my game since migrating to the United States three years before. While in Jamaica, I was a player with decent speed, in America I was always considered extremely fast. True to form I did very well in the 40-yard sprints, I had college speed as well, but the worst was yet to come.
The two-mile run was a test for stamina. It requires eight laps around the regulation track and our goal was to do this in under 12 minutes. We were split up into two groups and I was placed in the second. Watching the first group with mostly veteran players it seemed easy enough. The worst finish in that group was 13 minutes and 20 seconds.
Next up was my group and an experience that would mark my freshman year and college career forever. The first lap was easy enough and the second not too bad. In the middle of the third lap I began to feel a bit winded and by the start of the fourth, I hit a wall. I was lapped at around the six lap mark by two fellow freshmen and Coach called a halt to the torture somewhere in the middle of the seventh lap.
I had stood out to my teammates and Coaches, but for all the wrong reasons. An entire summer of not putting in endurance training of any sort had bitten me where it hurts.
Having done so poorly in the two-mile run, the first team scrimmage came at an inopportune time. My legs were very heavy and energy levels were low. I had a very sub-par game and did not show much in the attacking aspects of the game.
Class of 2001
|Mani in NYC PSAL action as a high school senior.|
The Saints had just come off back to back NCAA appearances and was a team seemingly ticking in the upward direction. 1997 however, seemed like it might be a year of transition as the team had lost its two All American strikers and several midfielders who contributed much to the team's success. I was brought in as a possible replacement for the strikers we had lost but so were two other very good players.
- Giggs a 6 foot 3 kid from Colorado who had exceptional ball control and foot skills especially for a big man, could score goals from inside or outside the box.
- Mad Dog was a player who played with more heart and desire than I had ever seen in my life. In addition to this, he had great positional awareness above average speed and a great shot.
In addition to myself, Giggs and Mad Dog, there were three other freshmen brought in to strengthen the team.
Bruiser was a defender, born in England and raised in France. He was a good passer, strong on the ball with a very good engine.
Pudge was a very composed midfielder who possessed excellent technique and a wonderful range on both his pass and shot.
Last but not least was Smooth, a player who did not make mistakes. He was perhaps the team's most consistent performer each time he walked onto the field even though he was a freshman.
The upperclassmen were friendly enough to us, there was a very good team spirit even though the competition was sky high.
NYC PSAL ALL STAR CITATION
Editor's note: Mani Tafari, aka "Howard Beckford"
I had learned very early in pre-season that I would not be in the starting line-up. My endurance was not up to the college level as demonstrated in the two-mile run. Additionally, my confidence had taken a huge hit from not being among the team’s best strikers.
Our first two games of the season would begin on the road. The night before after going over the scouting report for our first game, I was approached by one of our assistant coaches who informed me that I would not be making the trip to the away games with the other players. Even more disappointing, I learned that conversations were happening as to whether I would keep my place in the squad.
As a freshman, you learn very early that every player on your college team was also the best player on their high school team. How could the team consider cutting someone who had been the leading scorer on their team since the age of 9, a player who three years previously had won a High School National championship in Jamaica and led his high school team to the NYC PSAL final four the last two seasons while breaking scoring records along the way? The simple answer was that I was not good enough.
Before I came to St. Lawrence, I had never really worked on the defensive side of the ball, there was no need to. Other players would do that and get me the ball in the final third. Here, the Saints played a 4-3-3 formation and as one of the wingers, it was my job to constantly go back and forth while on the field. This required above all else, the one quality I did not possess. Endurance.
Our team would lose the first two games and the Saints who were back to back NCAA participants were 0-2 to start the young season.
In With the New
Starting the season with two losses was a wake-up call. Coach began to make changes and the freshmen began to play a more prominent role. Mad Dog and Giggs began to get more and more playing time, and I finally was dressed for our third game of the year.
I scored my first college goal minutes after entering the game and the team got our first win. That night I celebrated with my fellow freshmen, two of whom were also on the scoresheet. Smooth and Giggs had become regular starters by this point and it seemed I had found my sea legs as well.
The season went on and we staged a bit of recovery. Once again, we were conference champions but failed to get a bid to the NCAA. Instead, the team participated in the ECAC tournament which we won. The final game of the season we staged a come from behind win over regional powerhouse Plattsburgh capped by a 40-yard rocket from Smooth who by now was regarded, as a freshman, to be the best player on the team.
1997 was a transitional year for the Saints. A record of 9-5-2 was respectable enough after a rough start, but the season was a disappointing one for the program and for me personally. I had played in each game, except for the first two, but my place on the team was by no means secure. I was still the last striker on the depth chart, but I had completed my first season injury free, and more importantly, I knew what to expect in 1998.
Unlike offseason in High School, college soccer is year-round. There was the 1 v. 1 competition as well as a Spring fitness program that was mandatory for all returning players. I was determined to work hard in the Spring season and get back to my dominating ways on the soccer field come fall.
Now that the season was over, however there was that small matter of acclimating to life overall in college. I was struggling with one particular class, Sports Medicine, that was destroying my chances of having a good academic semester. I needed extra help, and the help came in the form of my soccer coach. Coach Durocher was very knowledgeable on the subject and would meet me at nights in his office, sometimes staying till midnight, to make sure I understood the concepts and lessons being taught in class.
Squads at this time were not big, and we had a team of 22 student-athletes on our soccer team. I was amazed and still am that Coach would leave his home with his own children and toddler to give academic help to a player who was the last on his depth chart. I learned a lot that offseason about myself and my Coach, the man who convinced me to be a Saint.
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