By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
This year’s crop of St. Bonaventure women’s soccer seniors experienced 29 wins, 91 goals, two Atlantic 10 tournament appearances, two head coaches and two fields during their time with the program.
When Gabriella Balseca, Lauren Hill, Stephanie Jenkins, Abby Maiello, Alex Meador and Christina Sarokon sat down to reflect on their four-year careers in preparation for senior day, however, statistics and numbers were not focal points of the conversation. In fact, on-field performance rarely came up at all.
Maiello scored 17 goals and dished out 14 assists in her SBU career, good for 15th in school history in career points with 48, so she had plenty of big moments on the pitch to reminisce about. Instead, she joined the other players in her eagerness to discuss the memories she made with her teammates.
“People always tell us that when it comes down to it, you’re never going to remember who had this many points or that many goals or if we won whichever game,” Maiello said. “You’re just going to remember the memories, and we already have times that we look back and remember funny things that we did on the bus or in the hotel on the road.
“We don’t even remember what the games were or where we were coming from, we just have the memories, and nothing will beat the memories that we’ve made here.”
Hill, who tallied 17 goals and five assists, good for 21st in points with 39, reminisced about being part of the Bonaventure family, an experience she said has been quite different from what life would have been at a larger school.
“If you’re from Bonaventure you’re already part of a family,” Hill said. “You might not even know who a person is, but as soon as you hear that they went to Bonaventure or even just know what Bonaventure is, it’s awesome. You don’t get that at a big school.”
Sarokon started 33 games as a Bonaventure keeper, but what made her and her fellow seniors really light up was when they told the story of the memorable bus ride when she became “Ti the Human Rocket.”
“I was laying down and sleeping in a blanket and I slid down the bus aisle,” Sarokon recalled. “It was bad; the bus driver slammed on the brakes.”
“That was my favorite moment for sure,” Maiello chimed in as the girls let out a hearty laugh.
Moments like those were easy to come by with this happy-go-lucky group, and the camaraderie of being on the team is what Jenkins will remember more than her goal and seven assists.
“We’ve all played soccer for such a long time, and all I think about is what I did with my teammates,” Jenkins said. “I couldn’t imagine not playing here and being someone who’s not an athlete and walking around trying to make friends. We came in and were blessed with a family already.
“That’s one of the things I’ll always remember, having so many best friends around from being on the team.”
Balseca, who started 66 of the Bonnies’ 77 games over the last four years, concurred with Jenkins.
“The experience is unlike any other; no one understands it unless they’re in our position,” said Balseca. “(Bonas) is really like that magical place that you’re always going to want to come back to and talk about and laugh about. It’s just a great place.”
Meador hails from Fishers, Ind., so she was the first to admit that the Bona experience took some getting used to.
“I’m from the furthest away out of everyone, so this whole Western New York thing was so different for me,” she explained. “When I got here it was kind of a culture shock, but the bubble embraced me.
“Now I have New York friends, Ohio friends and Florida friends; everyone is really welcoming. It’s been a great experience and I will forever be thankful that I played here because I would have never even thought of going here if it weren’t for soccer.”
The journey the six took came with many twists, turns and transitions, none more notable than a new coach and a new facility.
The first big change came after the group’s freshman year, when head coach Manoj Khettry left the program to assume the same position at Stetson University. Khettry’s departure started a nationwide search for a replacement, and that replacement was Steve Brdarski, who was formerly the associate head coach at Longwood University.
The seniors were not recruited by Brdarski, but the man simply known as “Coach Steve” in Bonaventure circles had an immeasurable impact on their careers. In his three seasons at the helm, he has given the program more of a family feel, and his team recognizes that.
“When coach came he welcomed us and made us feel comfortable,” Balseca said. “All of our playing styles improved so much because of his support; we felt like we were good enough to play. It just seemed like it all connected when he came.”
“Steve is an awesome guy, so having him come in and be so awesome to us was a nice change,” remarked Sarokon.
The change in the team’s atmosphere was not lost on the seniors, who took Brdarski’s lead when it came to interacting with the younger players as upperclassmen.
“I think we did a really good job of bringing the team together as a whole,” Hill said. “A lot of times the seniors become seniors and go ‘we’re the leaders, the freshmen don’t know what they’re doing; they’re just a part of the team.’
“We realize that everyone on our team is so important to our success that we really strive to make sure that everyone feels important.”
“We wanted to create that atmosphere because as freshmen we kind of didn’t have it,” Maiello added. “There were times where the upperclassmen kind of separated from the upperclassmen due to the age gap. We wanted to make sure everyone was involved and to bring everyone together to feel comfortable.”
“Maybe it’s because we’re so immature ourselves that we can get along with them,” Hill joked.
The second major change occurred a year after Brdarski came to the program: the completion of the Marra Athletics Field complex. The multipurpose turf field serves as the home of Bona’s soccer teams, lacrosse team and club rugby teams. It replaced a muddy, downtrodden field that led to an entire season of women’s lacrosse home games being relocated to neutral venues like Pitt-Bradford.
The women’s soccer team was given the honor of opening up the next chapter of the school’s athletic program when they played the first ever night game on Sept. 19, 2014 against Binghamton. An impressive crowd of 1248 fans watched the Bonnies cruise to a 3-1 victory. Sarokon started in net, while Maiello, Hill, Jenkins and Balseca each played at least 80 minutes.
“Getting a new field was such a nice change from our mud field that we used to have,” Sarokon said. “It was an advantage for us to have that muddy field because teams would come in and not know how to play on it, but it’s still nice to have turf because it’s the universal field nowadays.”
Overall, the changes that occurred had positive effects and helped the group bond.
“I think the changes helped our class bond a little more,” said Meador. “If we had just had the same coach all four years I think our experience would have been a lot different. It might have made it worse, might have made it better, but it brought the six of us closer together.”
The women may have played their last collegiate game on Sunday afternoon, a 3-0 defeat against St. Joseph’s, but Maiello knew that they would always be a part of the Bona family.
“When we’re on the road, whether we’re traveling as a team or individually, we always meet people in an airport or in a gas station and someone always yells ‘Go Bonas!’,” Maiello said. “You’re never going to go somewhere where there’s not somebody that comes up to you and shakes your hand and excitedly introduces themselves.
“I’m excited to be one of those obnoxious alumni someday.”