Survival of the fittest; Violets go deep in tourney


By Judith Stiles

It is a maverick decision for a soccer coach to hire a champion Golden Gloves boxer to become the trainer for his team, because punching is a no-no in the game of soccer. However, after 10 years of coaching a Division III team at New York University, Joe Behan, New York University’s soccer coach, rolled the dice and brought on the wizard of bantamweight boxing, Gregory Vincenty, to develop absolute maximum fitness in every player on the team. The gamble paid off because this season the N.Y.U. Violets made it to the N.C.A.A. Final Four for the first time in the school’s history, breaking all kinds of records along the way.

As a result of its appearance in the championship semifinals, N.Y.U. earned a No. 4 ranking in the final National Soccer Coaches Association of America Adidas poll. They also set the N.Y.U. record for wins, longest winning streak and longest unbeaten streak (12 games unbeaten, from Sept. 13 to Oct. 28). Individually, junior midfielder Jeritt Thayer was named the University Athletic Association Player of the Year and was awarded First Team All-Metropolitan Region honors. Sophomore goalkeeper Chris Wright was awarded Eastern College Athletic Conference Metro Region Player of the Week and Honorable Mention All-U.A.A. Thayer had 11 goals and four assists while Wright had 11 shutouts.

The riddle of how to create a winning season is pondered by coaches around the globe, and according to N.Y.U. co-captains, Thayer and Nicholas Palmer, Vincenty’s fitness program was the magic bullet this year.

“We took the other teams by surprise because of fitness,” Coach Behan said in retrospect.

With a laugh Vincenty chimed in, “When I first started working with the players, well, I think they hated me; but in the end we became family.” He brought all the rigor and discipline from his military background to two-hour training sessions, held daily at nearby Pier 40. His secret formula included wind sprints, suicide runs, push-ups, sit-ups, lunges and basic plyometrics, but most important, he brought a unique motivational style that just can’t be bottled.

“I told the players that it’s not personal, but I’m going to be yelling at you a lot!” Vincenty said with a smile. His ability to motivate the players was contagious, resulting in co-captain Palmer taking on the role of energizing his teammates before games.

“I liked to get them excited and focused on the game so they would have no fear. I talked to everybody on the team,” said Palmer of how he tried to stave off pre-game jitters.

The record-breaking season for the Violets was not without twists and turns, as a sudden death in the family sent Behan back to Ireland for a funeral.

“Losing him at such a time was devastating not only to himself, but to the entire athletic department and most of all the players that understood the incredible amount of work he has put into the program to reach that point of success,” said Thayer. But because the team was like a family, they “played on” under the excellent leadership of Assistant Coaches Nick Penze, Thomasz Stefanowski, Morad Freeman and Greg Vincenty.

A second factor that apparently propelled the Violets into the Final Four was a change in formation from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, meaning a change from three defenders in the back to four. Instead of playing with an all-out attack, N.Y.U. began closing things down on defense, often with powerful defenders, such as Jon Simos and lefty Matt Tio, along with M.V.P. Nick Katsanos, who was “like a rock and phenomenal in the air,” according to Behan.

One of the most memorable games of the Division III tournament was in the round of the Elite Eight where N.Y.U. played against University of California-Santa Cruz/Nazareth.

“The Violets were under a lot of pressure the first half, and as they moved into the second half it was a perfect example of how the fitness paid off,” remembered Vincenty proudly. In the 50th minute Robby Keller scored in the box off a corner kick, and after that, the Violets totally outplayed Santa Cruz/Nazareth due to their excellent fitness and all-around talent. The game ended in a 1-0 victory for N.Y.U.

For the big game in the Final Four, the Violets met Messiah College in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.

“The whole lead-up to the games was incredible, our players seeing their dreams come true and having it happen at Disney — it was just a fairy tale,” remarked Behan. Messiah was the two-time Division III defending soccer champion, making them a formidable opponent for any team. In the 29th minute of the game, a Violet received his second yellow card, resulting in the next 61 minutes of the match being played a man down for the Violets.

“You hate to have to play soccer when it’s not 11 versus 11, but we had to keep going and take care of business,” said Messiah’s coach, Dave Brandt. Although Violet goalkeeper Wright made seven outstanding saves, in the end, they fell to Messiah 3-0.

The good news for the Violets is that the two co-captains Thayer and Palmer will be back next year, as well as star goalie Wright and M.V.P. defender Katsanos. Already there is a gleam in the piercing eyes of Behan as he looks to the future.

“His dedication to the N.Y.U. soccer program is second to none, and on top of this, the energy he brings to the players and the love he has for the game are huge aspects of what make him the coach he is,” said Thayer, already looking forward to next season.

And with the holidays fast approaching, Coach Vincenty has a lot of advice for his players.

“First, don’t get fat,” he said with a chuckle. Second. . .well it is no surprise that the bulk of his advice is reserved for Violet ears only. Coaches, don’t despair. Perhaps Santa Claus is keeping a copy of Vincenty’s tips on fitness.