By Tyler Aragao, Staff Writer
The final buzzer sounded at Larkin Field. The scoreboard showed 2-1. The Southern New Hampshire University Penmen had clinched the Northeast-10 Conference women’s soccer title, while the Franklin Pierce University Ravens looked on in defeat. The Ravens were named runner-up, which was still a position no one expected them to finish in. This is the story of how they got there.
For the Ravens, one thing became clear over the last five years: the dominant era of the ‘90s and early 2000s was over. The four national titles in a five-year period were a distant memory. The program was starving for change, and in 2017 it would get it.
Jonathan Garbar would become just the fourth head coach in program history, when he replaced Jeff Bailey after a 21-year stint. The fresh-faced native of New Rochelle, N.Y., was eager to get underway. It started in February, when he announced his first pair of signees. Marta Turmo, a center back from Barcelona, Spain, and Bruna Tavares, a forward from Belo Horizonte Brazil, were both players who had played under Garbar in his previous stop at Monroe College. Turmo brought defensive stability, while Tavares added tenacity and scoring up front, which was something the Ravens desperately needed. Turmo and Tavares were the first signees of many, as Garbar would sign eight more recruits in April. The octet of recruits included key players such as Gabriella Braga, a transfer from Division I Creighton who added more skill and tenacity in the midfield, and Gabi Pereira, who would score four game-winning goals for the Ravens. Both had also played under Garbar at Monroe.
In just a few months under coach Garbar, the Ravens saw a massive overhaul, as only 10 of the 22 players on the roster were returners. Joining the 10 holdovers were seven freshmen and five transfers. Factor in all the changing parts, including the new coach, and it was not a surprise the NE10 poll had the Ravens finishing ninth.
The Ravens would defy the preseason poll by finishing fourth in the NE10, clinching a postseason spot, advancing to the league title game for the first time since 2010, and earning a spot in the NCAA Championship, also for the first time since 2010. The new-look squad vaulted the program out of mediocrity with many players, both new and old, contributing to its revival. The turnaround wasn’t instantaneous; it was a process that began with changes.
“We all embraced the change,” said senior back Aimee Malboeuf, who felt the change was necessary. “The program wasn’t going the right way; we wanted more intensity.” Whether it was a lack of direction or intensity, change was something the players sought.
“When we met him, we could see there would be a lot of change,” said junior forward Nathalia Maria da Silva. Garbar’s influence would change both players’ roles, as Malbouef became a mainstay on the Ravens’ backline, while da Silva found chemistry with new and returning players on offense.
For Malboeuf, her sophomore and junior years were not memorable. After not playing at all her freshman year, she missed all of sophomore year due to injury and struggled to find a consistent role her junior year. “My confidence was [not good] coming into this year,” she said.
Despite the confidence struggle, her new teammates supported her, as did her new head coach. “During the preseason they would tell me to keep pushing and I would eventually be rewarded,” said Malboeuf.
For da Silva, her change came about on the mental side of the game. As one of five Brazilian players on the team, da Silva built chemistry with Veronica Marques, who da Silva had played with and against back home. “We built chemistry through meetings, practices and just by talking,” said da Silva.
Emphasis on chemistry was major. With a new starting 11, it was a learning process for freshmen, transfers and returners alike. “It was like an exchange,” said captain Gabriela Braga. “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, so let’s just breathe, take a step back, and figure it out.”
Braga’s open approach was crucial, as the senior captain was able to strike a balance between communicating with her new teammates and the players she had known from her two years at Monroe. Her familiarity with Garbar allowed her to bridge the gap between the new players and the new head coach. With differing playing styles, languages and new players, Braga knew the importance of getting everyone on the same page.
“We learned how each other play, there were different styles, and the Portuguese speaking on the field made it interesting,” added freshman back Evaline Rodrigues, highlighting some of the challenges the Ravens faced.
Despite the need to forge chemistry, the changing positions and even the language barrier, the Ravens were able to overcome the bumps in the road by going 7-1-0 in the month of October, after a 4-2-2 record in September. One of the Ravens’ seven October wins came against the first-place Adelphi Panthers, who had been undefeated in NE10 play before the Ravens dealt them a 1-0 loss.
The Ravens were looking like the exact opposite of last year’s team. Playing with pace, pushing the tempo, and attacking the opposition’s defense with skill, creativity, and precision. What was supposed to be an unorganized and unfamiliar squad had become a tight-knit family “It was about purpose and the process,” said da Silva. The process that has propelled the team’s transformation is an ongoing one, which centers on getting better each day. “There was a change of individual and team mentality; there wasn’t just one driver, we were all drivers,” added da Silva.
The Ravens rode their newfound philosophy to a berth in the NE10 Championship for the first time since 2014. As the fourth seed, they won a pair of games at Sodexo Field to push their way back into the NE10 final for the first time in seven years. For veteran returners like Malboeuf and da Silva, making the playoffs was their primary goal. “I just wanted to make the playoffs, we made the finals and I feel we became better,” said da Silva of the team’s progression over the course of the year.
The end goal is not simply to make playoffs, or even to win an NE10 title. Rather, the goal installed by coach Garbar stretches far beyond this season and even next. For him and his squad, it is about improving every single day, and most players will attest to that. “I didn’t know what I’d find,” said Braga, “but I wanted to give all of myself. I helped developed my team and myself; I’m proud of my team.”
For Braga and company, there was a lot to be proud of. By the time the season’s final buzzer sounded, they had breathed new life into the program which was hungry for a new direction. More importantly, the Ravens had set the stage for continued success in the parts of the story yet to come.