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A Season For the Ages

A decade later, BU men’s soccer alums remember their 2003 accomplishments

October 28, 2013


A Season For the Ages

Stephen Bruce hoists the 2003 America East Championship Trophy following the title game against Northeastern

By David O’Brian (dobrian@binghamton.edu)
Binghamton Sports Information Office

Ten years ago, the Events Center had yet to open and the Bearcats Sports Complex had yet to be built. Binghamton was only in its third season as a NCAA Division I school and its primary venues were the West Gym and the adjacent soccer field.

While most of the Bearcat athletic programs were going through growing pains to make it at the NCAA Division I level, no team had seen tougher days in the previous three seasons than the men’s soccer squad. Since 2000, they had gone 12-41-2.

Within a span of four months, however, everything changed. The men’s soccer team rode the top defense in the nation to the America East championship. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Bearcats upset No. 15 Fairleigh Dickinson. Although they fell short in a second-round overtime game against seventh-ranked St. Louis, the Bearcats still finished the season ranked No. 26 in the nation.

Over the next five years, the Bearcats were nationally ranked three times. They advanced to the NCAA Tournament again in 2006 and reached the America East finals each year. The 2003 season launched one of the most successful periods in the history of the program.

There have been several other successful Division I programs at Binghamton. Still, the improbable run of the men’s soccer team in 2003, which culminated with a win in the NCAA Tournament, remains the benchmark for team success in a single season during the University’s Division I era.

Growing Pains

In 2001, Binghamton men’s soccer hit rock bottom, going 2-17. At one point, the Bearcats’ losing streak hit 19 games over two seasons. Pat Skinner, Ian Wendel and James Clancy were all sophomores on that team.

“We certainly worked hard to fight and be competitive,” Clancy said. “But things just didn’t go our way. Sometimes, being in a losing funk is contagious. Our confidence was low that season, for sure.”

In February 2002, however, Paul Marco was named the program’s new head coach. He had run the West Virginia program the previous six years and made an immediate impression on the team.
“He walked into the classroom at the West Gym for his first meeting with us and wrote 198 on the chalk board,” Wendel said. “That was our RPI out of 200 teams. The homework he did on the team and individuals on the team was impressive. He joked around with us a bit as we got to know him. However, at that meeting we knew he was not going accept losing.”

Marco found a handful of returnees committed to changing the culture of the program, including Skinner, Clancy and Wendel. He also brought two of his players from West Virginia in as transfers. Charles Darkwah would eventually become the America East Striker of the Year. Mike Austin would fight through injuries to be a mainstay in the midfield.

It was a country across the Atlantic Ocean, however, that would truly change the culture of the Binghamton men’s soccer program. From the nation of Scotland came Graham Munro and Stephen Bruce. Both would become team leaders immediately.

“I came to Binghamton because (then assistant coach) John Scott recruited me,” Bruce said. “I had known and played with John in Scotland, He had actually hooked me up to play for a rival school a few years before he joined Binghamton so I am glad I didn’t end up there!”

“I was playing in an amateur men’s league in Scotland while working full time for an IT company,” Munro said. “It wasn’t exactly the most glamorous lifestyle – that’s for sure.  I was actually approached by the father of then Assistant Coach John Scott who was a coach in the league I played in back home.  At the time, I had intimated to those that knew me that I planned on heading to Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, which was where my older brother played.  I was put in touch with John and the more he talked to me, the more interested I became in going to Binghamton.”

Another elite recruit came from back in the Western hemisphere. Danilo was seen playing soccer in his native Brazil by several coaches. Binghamton wasn’t the first program to spot him but in the end, it was the best fit.

“I was seen playing soccer in Brazil by another Division I school,” he said. “They started offering me a scholarship, but not enough for my needs. Instead of bringing me in, they chose two Italian players, who ended up never really playing for them. John Scott heard about me and contacted me. I liked what Binghamton had in mind and it was an easy decision for me to come.”

Marco and Scott also brought in several in-state players who would become a significant part of the program, including Kyle Antos, Darius Ravangard, Phil Grommett and Luc Vallone. Mike Hibbert also arrived as a junior college transfer.

Binghamton improved to 6-11-1 in 2002. Although its win total had tripled from 2001, there was still no clear indication of what was to come the following year.

“We Had Special Chemistry”

It was against that backdrop that the team reported back to campus for the 2003 campaign. Once again, several new faces were on the roster. Ross Campbell and Stefan Gonet arrived from Scotland. Bryan Arnault, Dan Blank, Stuart Berberich, Ryan Bertoni, Tyler Bush, Zach Kneeland, Mike Greenberg, Greg Picciano and Mark Deemer were all in-state recruits. From Pennsylvania came Joey Neilson.

To no one’s surprise, however, the America East preseason poll had the Bearcats picked eighth. The media coverage of the story made it clear how little was expected of the team. Not a single reporter came out to talk to the team. One station reported the poll by showing two goals being scored against the Bearcats during the previous season. It wasn’t just the media that was apathetic towards the men’s soccer program. The crowds at the West Gym Field rarely rose above 100 fans.

Within the team, however, a special chemistry was starting to develop. United by a determination to rebuild the program, the Bearcats were transforming into the tight-knit group required to win championships.

“We had special chemistry,” Skinner said. “It just came about with the personalities and camaraderie. Many team members stayed in Binghamton that summer to train and take a class or two. It helped to spend time training with each other, outside of the coaches’ eyes and to get to know each other. Every player had one thing in mind and that was improving to win soccer games. With everyone focused on that and willing to sacrifice, the camaraderie just grew from there.”

“Our leaders were the ones who worked the hardest and set the bar really high for everyone else,” Danilo said. “If I ‘m a freshman on the bench, and I see our best players running like crazy and fighting for the win, I get enough incentives to do the same when it is my time to be in the field. We had 25 – not just 11 hard-working friends in the field.”

In September, Binghamton started off a surprising 4-2-3. Gonet had stabilized the goalkeeping position while Munro, Skinner and Campbell anchored the defense. Up front, Bruce, Darkwah, Arnault and Neilson were all coming through with clutch goals. Danilo, meanwhile, was the key link at the central midfield position.

As the chemistry tightened and results improved, the team started to come up with collective songs and chants for after wins. No one knows just how it started but the singing and chanting became a staple on the team bus trips and in the showers after matches.

“I’m not too sure if the singing was in place before but I think the Scottish contingent had quite a bit to do with it,” Campbell said. “A lot of the songs are similar to the ones we sing about the teams we support in Scotland but we changed the words to relate to Binghamton or the Bearcats. The singing brought a team togetherness and banter between the lads.”

“It’s tough to say exactly how it all started,” Munro said. “We had a charismatic team that would always come up with new traditions. Singing was just something that accompanied winning.”

Another evident part of the team was the banter between the players during a game. With the comfort level players had with each other, there was much imploring during a match. While many teams communicate with one another during a match, Binghamton was took to a new level in 2003.

“That’s the standard way of a team in Scotland and other countries,” Bruce said. “We tried to get this into our team and by the 2003 season, we were all comfortable enough with one another that we could be like that with one another. It helps get the lads going.”

“I think there was a drive, a determination and a will to win during that era which has emotions running high on the field,” Munro said. “I think most players understood that nothing said on the field was personal and anything that was said was borne out of a hunger for success.  Looking back, the desire to achieve success on the national level was what motivated everyone.”

On game days, the Bearcats’ focus was beyond intense. Munro, for one, disliked anything that distracted the team from winning. That included everything including pregame music and ceremonies.”

“I don’t think anybody really cared what music was playing before games, I know I certainly didn’t,” Munro said. “We were always playing for points and the last thing I wanted was to be involved with pregame stuff.”

Title Run

October was the month things really started to fall into place for Binghamton. The team went 4-0-4 in the remaining eight conference games and locked down the No. 2 seed in the America East Tournament. Gonet and the backfield were the top-ranked defense in the nation and had not allowed a goal in nearly a month.

In the first week on November, many thought Binghamton would be turning in its uniforms and equipment. Instead, the Bearcats were preparing for an America East semifinal game against Hartford at the West Gym Field. By now, the fan support and media attention had changed 180 degrees from the start of the year.

“It was a great feeling,” Campbell said. “People we didn’t know were coming up to us to say good luck and wishing you all the best. I think some had never even watched a game of football (soccer) before but came along to support us.”

“Every week the popularity grew and grew and we relished that,” Gonet said. “It inspired us and pushed us to be better the next time we took to the field. By the end of the season the crowds were amazing!”

After a 1-0 win over Hartford, Binghamton moved on to host defending America East champion Northeastern in the finals on Nov. 15. The media demand had gotten to the point that the team had a press conference at the beginning of the week to talk about the game. The match was played up as the best team from the previous year against the upstarts from Binghamton. But that’s not how the Bearcats saw it.

“Despite what happened in 2002, there was an inner belief that we had a chance of winning a conference title but we had a team that was capable of competing on a national level,” Munro said. “This was no fairytale story – the reality is that we had assembled a group of players from across the world who were capable of beating anyone in an NCAA game.”

The Bearcats didn’t actually beat Northeastern in the finals. The two squads played to a 1-1 draw before going to the decisive penalty kick shootout. When Binghamton won the shootout 3-2, the crowd of more than 1,000 fans stormed the field.

“It was just pure elation,” Skinner said. “There was a lot of emotion and feelings of satisfaction and justification for all the hours of hard work. It was a buzz that pretty much lasted a month.”

“That whole day was special,” Gonet said. “I remember the build up, the crowd, the cold day against probably the best team in the league. We knew it was going to be tough. As soon as they missed that last penalty kick, it was a great celebration.”

“After the season we had had in 2002, I had begun to wonder if I had made the right move coming over (from a footballing perspective),” Bruce said. “So getting to the final and playing at home was well deserved by everyone on the team for the hard work we did in the spring, summer and throughout the season. The game itself was a bit scrappy, but to go on and win it on penalty kicks with a big crowd there was a massive moment for all of us.”

On the National Stage

Two days after the finals, the entire local media and several dozen administrators and staff gathered on campus for the ESPN NCAA Men’s Soccer Selection Show. The Bearcats found out they would travel to No. 15 Fairleigh Dickinson for a Nov. 22 first-round game. The winner would advance to play at No. 7 St. Louis four days later.

For many, the season had already been a banner year. The Bearcats, however, weren’t ready to see the season end. 

“We didn’t travel to Fairleigh Dickinson to take photos,” Munro said. “We went there to win the game and fully expected to do so. We felt we were one of the best teams in the country at that time and had no fear heading to Farleigh Dickinson.”

If the fan support had been impressive in the final weeks of the regular season, it was over the top for the Bearcats in the NCAA Tournament.

“A couple former players chartered a bus to NJ for the Farleigh Dickinson game and probably 20-30 ex-players were with them,” Clancy said. “I remember being in pre-game warm ups and hearing them arrive. They were louder than the home crowd. That support meant a lot.”

In the end, Binghamton defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 1-0 on a goal by Neilson in the 80th minute.  The result sent shock waves all the way back to Binghamton and across the nation. The Binghamton women’s basketball team was playing a tight game against Syracuse in the West Gym before an impressive crowd. The biggest cheer of the afternoon, however, came when the men’s soccer score was announced. 

The day before Thanksgiving is a day most fall teams have long since concluded their seasons. In 2003, however the Bearcats were a 1,000 miles away from campus. They were facing St. Louis University in front of more than 3,000 fans.

“I knew the game was going to be a tough one and that player-by-player they were more experienced than us, but we felt we could beat them as a team,” Danilo said. “When we came out for the warm up and I saw thousands of people watching us, personally, I felt like I was back in Brazil.”

The St. Louis media had showed up to Binghamton’s practice the day before, eager to learn about the upstart team from Upstate New York. Through 90 minutes of regulation, everyone learned about the resolve of Binghamton as it battled the favored Bilikens to a 0-0 tie heading into overtime.

In the end, St. Louis finally scored in the first sudden-death overtime period to end the Bearcats’ season. Many felt that if the game went into penalty kicks, the Bearcats would have the advantage.

Looking Back

Next month, the 2003 Bearcats will spend Thanksgiving with their families. Ten years ago, however, they spent Thanksgiving Day waiting for their flight back home to Binghamton from St. Louis. Much has changed in each of their lives, but the memories of that season and the bonds they established that season remain strong to this day.

“That season means more to me than I can probably explain,” Clancy said. “Seeing the support that we received from friends and family – some of them even traveling to St. Louis to watch us play – meant a lot and is something I will never forget. Outside of the conference trophy and NCAA tournament success, 2003 taught me a lesson that hard work does pay off. That’s something I have taken with me for my life outside of soccer.”

“We are all still very close,” Wendel said of his former teammates. “That season was a great time in my life as were all my years at Binghamton University.”

Marco remains at Binghamton, now in his 12th season as the Bearcats’ head coach. A decade later, however, the 2003 season remains his most memorable as a coach.

“They were the biggest group of overachievers I have ever coached,” he said. “Their competitive spirit, their will to win and their closeness were unmatched. The seniors (Clancy, Skinner and Wendel) were willing to change their roles to help the team win. The leadership was fantastic and the confidence of that team was great all year. They always believed they would win.”

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