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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

Saints overcome slow start, make third consecutive conference tournament

They started the season 1-5 in conference play. They battled a COVID-related shutdown of the program. They had more than 20 positional changes. But the Holy Cross men’s soccer team still found a way to finish with a winning record and make the conference tournament for the third year in a row. 

“It [was] one of those come-together moments,” head coach Omar Gallo said of the turnaround. “We had one of our team meetings, we just had a couple of upperclassmen speak up, even some underclassmen speak up, and we asked the question, ‘Why do you think we’re still being granted this opportunity to play after going 1-5?’”

Whatever question was posed at that team meeting, it had an effect on the team. They immediately rattled off five consecutive victories and surged up the conference standings. 

The Saints ultimately finished the year 8-7-1, with a 6-6 conference record. They entered the conference tournament as an eight seed, where their season came to an end by way of a 3-1 defeat to top-seeded Cardinal Stritch University. 

“We’re still trying to get over that hump of getting to [the] national championships,” Gallo said. “But we’re giving ourselves a chance to compete every year.”

Senior center back Jeff Rafter was also named to the CCAC all-conference first team. “Jeff is definitely one of the best center backs we’ve ever brought in this program,” Gallo said. 

When Rather arrived at Holy Cross, he requested the number 5. The coaching staff had reserved that number for a player who could not only succeed on the field but off it as well.

“That reason was because the last two players that wore that number were spectacular players and just human beings,” Gallo said. “Jeff made that promise that if he got that number five, that he would go above and beyond and set an even higher standard than those individuals.”

Holy Cross graduates some key players, including goalkeeper Lewis Tomlinson and midfielder Raymond Giang, but Gallo still has high expectations for next season. “We’re a very young team, which excites the coaching staff,” he said. 

Senior defenders Cliff Brown and Laith Zaibal will return, as the NAIA granted athletes an extra year of eligibility. Rafter may return as well, although at Holy Cross, which does not have graduate programs, players can only return if they have the credits they need to complete for their degree. 

The coaching staff recently named Brown the captain for the upcoming season, and Gallo is also excited about the continued growth of freshman defender Victor Sellu, freshman forward Gabe Nyenka, and sophomore midfielder Jeffrey Harper. 

He hopes the team can carry their momentum from the second half of last season into the fall. 

“Our backs were against the wall the last six games of the season,” Gallo said. “It’s just creating that mentality, not when you’re put into that position, but from game number one.”