'There's still the soccer team at Towson' — it just doesn't play any games

As peers play in NCAA tournament, members of the Tigers' disbanded program find ways to move on

November 23, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

To the vast majority of the world, it was just another intramural soccer game, played on a Friday afternoon before a meager crowd at Towson University.

Unless you'd followed the fortunes of the Towson men's soccer program, the names Grundei, Toribio and Mensah wouldn't have meant much. You'd have missed the mixture of joy and sorrow in their meeting for the university's intramural championship.

You see, these players thought they'd spend this fall striving for an NCAA tournament berth, just like their peers at Maryland, Navy and UMBC, who will play in second-round games Sunday.

Instead, they represent the remnants of a disbanded program.

Towson president Maravene Loeschke put an end to the university's long history with men's soccer in March, citing financial and Title IX strains in the athletic department. State officials swooped in to save the university's baseball program but offered no salvation for soccer.

Though three players from the 2012 team found places in other programs, many more stayed at Towson, where they persist as a sort of phantom team — still bonded, still in love with soccer but with no practices to attend or games to play.

Which is why the Oct. 18 showdown between Narp Life and Annoymous — intramural teams stocked with former members of the varsity — felt like a last, strange celebration of the program.

"It got really competitive out there," said Pierre Mensah, a sophomore from Kensington.

For the record, Narp Life, the team with more ex-varsity players, won 1-0. But former Towson captain Daniel Grundei, a junior from Germany, said he happily accepted defeat.

"Just to see each other out there, that was a lot of fun," he said wistfully.

Such moments have been far outnumbered by those that evoke loss. The former Towson players have loved soccer since they were small boys. And without the daily grind of practices and the beacon of games ahead, they have felt a bit empty in recent months.

For Grundei, the feeling hit most powerfully at the beginning of the semester, when he watched athletes from other sports begin their rituals of preparation.

"I would just sit in the classroom and think about what I could be doing instead," he said. "It hurts; I'm not going to lie."

For his roommate, senior Sammy Bangura, the feeling strikes in the middle of every day, the time he used to reserve for practice and workouts.

"Not a day goes by when that period of time comes without me thinking, 'Damn, I could be at practice right now,'" said Bangura, a goalkeeper from Laurel. "Even though we were sometimes at practice complaining, not having it makes you realize: I really do have a love for this sport."

The new abundance of free time is disconcerting, said Josh Toribio, a sophomore from Somerset, N.J. "Every day is a struggle," he said. "Every day, I think about soccer and what could've been with our team."

Toribio talks about it almost like a death in the family. "I learned that nothing was guaranteed," he said. "They basically told me I wasn't going to be doing what I've done my entire life. I couldn't believe they could just do that."

Frank Olszewski certainly understands how his former players feel. He had coached at Towson for 30 years and won nearly 300 games when the axe came down on his program. Olszewski still does administrative work for Towson on a contract that runs through the end of this academic year. And he has moved on to supervise all coaching for the Baltimore Bays youth soccer program.

"I've emotionally invested myself in other projects, so I don't have time to dwell on it," Olszewski said. "But I stay in sometimes daily contact with everyone. It's difficult at times. I think about what could've been."

His former Towson players come to work out with him at Bays practices. It's one of many ways they've attempted to remain connected with the game.

Toribio, Mensah and sophomore Joey Yeboah all played in the Charm City men's league. Mensah also became vice president for Towson's club soccer team.

Grundei and the other Germans from Towson's roster played for Pipeline S.C., another club program in the area.

Bangura has coached younger players and enjoyed it.

But none of it quite made up for coming together every day as a team.

"I don't want to compare it to any major tragedy, but to us guys, who have been doing this since we were five years old, it is kind of like a tragedy," Bangura said. "It hit us really hard. Some big part of our lives was taken away from us."

Virtually every member of the team has spoken with coaches at other schools about playing elsewhere. Goalkeeper Felix Petermann landed at San Jose State. Midfielder Ram Gilad plays at Montevallo in Alabama. Fellow midfielder C.J. Corey plays at George Mason.

Corey recently visited his Towson teammates, and they went to cheer him on as Mason played UMBC.

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