AFTER 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Saint Anselm College men’s soccer team has opened this campaign at 6-1, its best start in more than 20 years. These Hawks have an experienced and deep team capable of changing styles as needed. They’re getting goals from multiple scorers and they’re anchored by an award-winning final line of defense.
They also have some weighty inspiration. You can see it on their warm-up T-shirts, the ones that say, “Play for Joe.”
That would be Joe Underhill, the father of Hawks senior goalie and co-captain, Brian Underhill. Joe, who Saint Anselm coach Bruno Victal described as the team’s “biggest fan,” passed away suddenly in August.
“Brian’s dad was a guy that was at every single game, home or away, no matter how far, no matter what day of the week,” said Zach Elliot, the other Hawks co-captain. “He was always there, always supporting us, yelling for us and yelling for Brian. So, his passing serves as motivation for us. It gives us an extra something to play for.”
Brian missed the entire preseason to be with his father and family, but you wouldn’t know it by his play. Underhill has already earned a Player of the Week honor (Sept. 19) and a Goalkeeper of the Week honor (Sept. 12) from the Northeast-10 Conference. He allowed just two goals in the first five games of the season and posted three shutouts in that span. One of those was a 1-0 win at Southern New Hampshire University on Sept. 14, Saint Anselm’s first win against its crosstown rivals in 13 years.
“Soccer has always been my outlet, but even more so this year, so I guess you could say I’ve had a greater focus, but at the end of the day you have to get yourself into that mindset that you’re ready to play no matter what,” said Underhill, of Westford, Mass. “There’s a certain mindset you have to get into each fall. You have to balance school and soccer at the same time. You have to stay focused through everything.”
When he has needed to focus on his family and his emotions, Underhill’s team has been there to support him. That’s mostly happened behind the scenes, but they show it with the T-shirts. They show it by writing the initials “JU” on their tape before every game.
“It’s small in the moment, but it means the world to me, it means the world to my mom (Cristina), who comes to every game and sees that,” Underhill said. “It’s definitely a very special environment the guys have been putting around me. I’m extremely blessed to have the people I have in my locker room.”
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re all friends, we all have each others’ backs, so supporting Brian, his family is like our family,” said Elliot, a Manchester Central graduate. “We just want to do anything we can for Brian and his family to make this season really special for them.”
Underhill’s best friend, senior Kyle White, has certainly helped make the Saint Anselm defense special. White was expected to start as the team’s holding midfielder, but the Hawks lost three center backs to injury during the preseason, so coach Victal moved White from his central midfield role into the center of the back line to fill in the void. The change has worked better than anyone hoped.
White’s foot skills, field vision and passing have allowed the Hawks to play out of the back more often. He is also strong enough defensively to hold up against the opposing attack, and the rest of the league has taken notice — White has won back-to-back NE10 Defensive Player of the Week awards.
Plus, White and Underhill have great chemistry.
“It’s been encouraging to have my best friend playing in front of me as a center back, and we have a real solid back line, so it’s not just a one-man show back there,” Underhill said. “Kyle and I have both gotten our accolades this past two weeks, and we’ve been really vibing off of each other. The second I make a good save, he’s all juiced up, and the second he steps in and makes a good tackle, I’m all juiced up.”
Ten of the 12 players who have started three games or more for Saint Anselm this year are juniors or seniors, or, in the case of Elliot, a graduate student. Not only have those players been around the program for years, almost all of them have seen a lot of field time for the Hawks.
“This is the most experienced lineup I’ve ever had on the field,” said Victal, who is in his sixth year as Saint Anselm’s head coach.
While the older Hawks are leading the way, the team also has talented underclassmen. The incoming talent gives Saint Anselm depth it hasn’t enjoyed in the past.
The combination of experience and depth, plus the team’s overall intelligence, means the Hawks can play different formations and styles. That allows Victal and his staff to create game plans specific to each opponent, and that’s clearly helped with the fast start.
“I think that’s the strength of the team this year. We’re very flexible and versatile,” said Elliot.
That versatility extends to the goal scoring. Six players have found the back of the net for the Hawks this season. Elliot and senior Jackson Bukunt top the list with three goals each. White and senior Taylor Silverstein, a Concord High grad, have two each. And junior Josue Assantha, another Manchester Central product, and sophomore Andrew Kubinski have one each.
Victal and the Hawks understand how difficult winning is in the NE10, so they’re trying to not look too far ahead and just take this season one day and one game at a time. Still, with all of the older players, some newfound talent and a fantastic start, it’s hard not to peek ahead a little bit.
“We have some more goals this year and the mindset that yes, we want to make the postseason,” Underhill said. “We aren’t getting drowned in thoughts of the future, but we’re also keeping in mind that we have some things that we’re working toward.”