Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
As the sun starts setting, coloring the sky in a variety of orange tones, music travels the surroundings of Ortmayer Stadium along with a chilly breeze. The stands are still empty, and there is a feeling of calm before the storm as a group of men walk together onto the field, just like any other Wednesday and Saturday.
Their feet wrapped in cleats, socks a couple of inches below their knees. Their eyes focused on a familiar circular object, split-second calculations as they hit it towards each other or the rectangular target to their left. Their muscles starting to warm up, their mindset fixated on the battle that awaits.
For 10 players of La Verne men’s soccer team, this ritual took place for the last time Nov. 3. Before finally wearing their graduation gowns and caps, the senior student-athletes have had to hang their boots, concluding their collegiate soccer career as the final whistle blew.
Forwards Saul Uribe and Nathan Gonzalez, midfielders Briley Venti, Justin Funes, Justin Almandinger, Jaime Moreno and Raymundo Alcaraz, defenders Humberto Irra and Martin Gonzalez and goalkeeper Greg Veron played their last season as Leopards during the fall of 2016.
The feeling is bittersweet, as the chapter comes to an end and they are forced to say goodbye, leaving behind a trace of memories that lasted much longer than 90 minutes.
“My last season definitely I’d say it’s different, just because I’m a senior and because of that you got to give it your all,” Uribe said. “But knowing that it’s my last season I tried not to worry about that too much, I just tried to focus on enjoying it and doing the best I can with my team.”
“There’s always going to be pressure, but you can’t let that get to you. I do feel a little bit more sense of responsibility so I tried to be a good role model for other classmans and show them the way to have a successful season.”
Uribe had a decisive role in his last year, contributing to game-winning goals and being recognized as Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Athlete of the Year.
“I definitely changed a lot, I got to play different positions, and I got to see the team grow. We got a new coach my second year here, so I’ve definitely seen the program change a lot and was lucky enough to be part of that change,” Uribe said.
Also ending their season with a flourish were Nathan Gonzalez and Funes, who were featured in All-SCIAC’s first team, and Venti who was selected to the second team.
“A lot has changed because our first season I think we played like a lot of kickball and were a whole new team,” Gonzalez said. “Now I think we’re a really complete team, we can pass the ball, I think we’re the best team in the league. We have a complete team.”
Throughout the season, the squad relied not only on the seniors’ experience and maturity, but also on their leadership.
“It was a fun, memorable season, but sad because it’s my last time playing competitively,” Moreno said. “I felt a bit of both, pressure to excel and win it all because it was our last season and at the same time just going out and having fun because it was the last time I was going to get to play with that group of guys.”
The connection on and off the field had a fundamental part in the team’s chemistry. With several inside jokes and closeness making for a lively environment in the locker room, the seniors were able to lead a team strong in both good spirit and unity when decisive moments approached.
“We have a lot of jokes on the team, so there’s a lot of joking around, non-stop, laughing all the time,” Nathan Gonzalez said. “But when it comes to game time we’re really serious and all we want to do is win, so I think we have a good balance.”
Some players call each other ‘crack’ – an affectionate term in Spanish to describe an outstanding player – and it is not rare to hear a bird-like sound echo around the campus, which became a special greeting to call one another.
“I’d say we’re all funny, we’re all weird in our own way and we kind of understand each other, that’s what keeps us together,” Uribe said. “Sometimes we like saying that we’re the weirdest team in our league, but it’s all just joking around. I love every single guy on this team.”
The seniors agreed that a lot has changed compared to their first season, on athletic and personal levels, whether they have played at La Verne all four years, like Uribe, Nathan Gonzalez and Moreno, or transferred from another institution like Venti.
“I guess as a person a little more maturity, that just comes with age. But as a soccer player, I feel like my teammates pushed me and encouraged me to be the best player I could be,” Venti said. “Soccer is the reason I got into this school, so I owe soccer everything in regards to my education.”
Although the experience will be one to remember with pride and nostalgia, the seniors all have something specific that will be missed when soccer is not part of their college routine anymore.
“The whole cohesiveness of being part of a team and working towards a goal of winning everything, and just playing competitive soccer in the college atmosphere,” Nathan Gonzalez said.
“The games and my teammates,” Moreno said. “Being able to interact on a daily basis, if you need a friend they’re there for you. And probably the game days too, how we would all get ready and walk out together.”
“Just playing soccer everyday, having practice, playing in collegiate games and competing for my school,” Venti said.
“Definitely hanging out with the soccer team, soccer is a huge passion of mine so being with them and sharing the same passion, doing what we all love, is definitely something I’m going to miss,” Uribe said.
After they leave, the seniors’ experience will live on and be passed along to teammates and new recruits through advice, leadership examples and the team culture they helped build.
“I think the best advice I’d give is to be confident as soon as possible, to get your confidence as soon as possible, because when you have your confidence that’s when you’re going to play to your best ability in order to shine in the league,” Nathan Gonzalez said.
“Train hard, enjoy the experience and don’t feel any pressure because it flies by, so enjoy every moment,” Venti said.
“Listen to the coach, just buy into the system, whatever he says is true. It’s helped us get to where we’ve been the past two seasons which is getting to the SCIAC tournament. So just keep working, play every year like if it was your last year,” Uribe said.
Although it is impossible to predict what the future holds for the 10 seniors, it is safe to say no matter the individual pathways they choose, they can always meet again in their memories of soccer.