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Conn College's championship soccer team welcomed home

New London — Less than 24 hours removed from capturing the school's first team national championship, a weary Connecticut College men's soccer team stepped off the bus and onto Tempel Green Sunday morning.

Coach Reuben Burk was the first in line, carrying the national championship trophy.

An enthusiastic crowd of mostly students loudly cheered the team's arrival back to campus. "We are the Champions" by Queen blasted from the loudspeakers. Team members gathered close together and sang along.

It was yet another special moment in a special season.

"That was a really nice gesture," Burk said of the welcome home reception. "Really appreciate students coming out."

The joyous celebration started Saturday night on the University of North Carolina Greensboro Soccer Stadium field after beating Amherst in a shootout in the title game, carried over to the locker room and then continued back at the team hotel just before midnight.

Sleep could wait, as the Camels stayed up all night, boarding a bus to the airport around 3 a.m. for an early morning flight.

"There were a lot of fans there, so we celebrated with them at the hotel," said freshman Peter Silvester. "It was incredible. The fans were amazing, to see parents and see alumni. I had people hugging me who I never met before and I felt like I've known them my whole life.

"It was a great experience."

Burk may need until the season opener next fall to respond to the over 1,000 text messages that he received from family, friends, former players, other New England coaches and Conn College community.

Sunday morning, the Camels were still trying to process what they had accomplished.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," junior Augie Djerdjaj said. "It's weird because we haven't gone to sleep yet, so it feels like today that we won, even though it was last night."

Burk's years of soccer experience as a player, an assistant coach on all three NCAA levels and now head coach give him a different perspective than his players. He knows the vast majority of coaches never raise a national championship trophy and how hard it is to accomplish that feat.

He appreciates his team's commitment, dedication, focus and selflessness that served as the driving force behind the program's unprecedented success.

During the post-championship game celebration, Burk made it a point to talk to each member of the Conn College soccer family.

"I congratulated each guy individually," Burk said. "I soaked it in with each guy individually and I got a picture with each guy. I told the group how proud I am."

The foundation for this national championship season was set last fall. With the season canceled due to the pandemic, the Camels turned the break into a positive, regularly working out and practicing.

Everybody played a part in the team's thrill ride this season that included Conn College's first New England Small College Athletic Conference regular season title and a program record 18 wins, from star players to the supporting cast.

Players like junior Oliver Pinyochon who never complained about going from a starter to a bench player and served as a positive leader, and Aiden Scales, a senior captain who didn't play a minute in the six NCAA tournament games but supported and encouraged his teammates.

"In order to win a national championship, you have to have a group of selfless guys," Burk said. "Guys that care more about that trophy that we have more than their own ego or their own reputation. That's hard to instill because everyone goes through a recruiting process where they want what's best for themselves, the best possible four years of what they can get from a school.

"But, once you get there, it's no longer about you. It's about all of us, together."

Silvester, who played in only five games this season, is another example. He was ready when called on to come off the bench to play goalie during the penalty kick shootout on Saturday and made two huge saves.

"Everyone wanted to make an impact in some way, even if you didn't play," Silvester said. "It's great to win a national championship. I'm really happy to have an impact on winning the national championship, that was my main goal."

In a season filled with terrific accomplishments and fond memories, the Camels saved the best for last at the Final Four, rallying to beat Washington & Lee, 2-1, in overtime in the semifinals and then outlasting Amherst, the 2019 national runner-up, in the shootout. They made all four of their penalty kicks.

They remained remarkably poised for playing on college soccer's biggest stage for the first time. Nothing seemed to faze them.

"This season, we've had so many ups and downs that we really grew and matured as a team," junior captain Steve Yeonas said. "We haven't been at this stage, but we have so many guys that play with confidence, so many freshmen and sophomores who are fearless and that's just great to see.

"The confidence comes from all the hard work that we put in and just the belief that we have."

The future looks extremely bright.

The Camels will return all but three players in seniors Lorenzo Bocchetti, MT Tshuma and Scales.

"We want to enjoy this moment as much as we can, but obviously we're always looking forward and seeing what we can achieve more," Djerdjaj said.

First, the Camels will take a well-deserved break after a physically and emotionally draining season. They'll have a team meeting this week before breaking up.

They are no longer just the Camels. They're the national champion Camels.

They've elevated their standing to elite status in the Division III men's soccer world.

"It helps validate things and who we are and the level that we've risen to," Burk said. "From my perspective, it solidifies the processes that we take and how we train in the offseason and how we prepare for games and what our culture is like in the locker room, that validates a lot of things.

"The national championship, what it mainly does is allow me to push these guys even harder. Everyone is going to be gunning for us and everyone is going to want to beat the national champion. We're going to have a target on our back. I'm going to need to find ways where guys aren't complacent, they want to keep improving and want to win another. That's a very, very difficult challenge on the horizon."

g.keefe@theday.com

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