Tied at one, on the road and vying to keep their Big East Tournament hopes alive, Seton Hall got a big moment from a player that was a year ago playing across the country at Las Positas, a junior college in Livermore, Calif. That player was Marco Neves, and that moment was Neves’ fourth goal of the season.
Meanwhile, marauding in the defensive midfield throughout the season has been Gabriel Viola, the Brazilian by way of Iowa Western Community College, who has not missed a game and has added two goals and three assists in his first season in the blue and white.
The duo is part of a large wave of six experienced upperclassmen that were brought into the program this year, a change from the philosophy of two seasons ago when Pirates head coach Gerson Echeverry brought in 10 freshmen and witnessed the team struggle to adjust and fail to win a game.
“I thought when we brought in that big class, as talented as they were, they were extremely immature,” Echeverry said. “And it showed in games; in some big games that we couldn’t hold off. And some games we just couldn’t come back from. I mean, they fought and fought and were in a lot of games, but that [bringing in experience over youth] was the exact mindset.”
The group of players that were brought in this season can broadly be defined as high-character guys, with experience and hardship from having to make it, some at a community college and others in a foreign country.
Viola has had to overcome both obstacles, as the Rio de Janeiro native – who had the idea of playing soccer in the United States – had to work and study diligently, while also staying patient for three years, for his chance at Div. I soccer.
“I wanted a challenge for my life, I wanted to come to play D-1, but first I wasn’t eligible,” Viola said. “For me, my only way to go to D-1 would be studying and playing at junior college and graduating. So, I was looking at the best junior colleges in the country, and Iowa Western showed some interest.”
The harsh winters of Iowa were something new for Viola, as was the style of soccer, although neither change phased him, as he established himself as the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Most Valuable Player, on top of earning first-team honors and a Region Best XI nod as well.
Viola garnered interest from powerhouse schools such as Clemson and Louisville, in addition to Big East rival Creighton, although the midfielder needed a full ride, and equally, commitment from a school by January, or else he would be forced to sit out another season.
“[Viola] was one of the key guys that we wanted and we were fortunate enough that we had some money available, because some guys had graduated early, and we knew we could bring him in in January,” Echeverry said.
Neves, meanwhile, was verbally committed to Notre Dame coming out of high school, but not long after had stopped playing soccer in what he described as an “emotional rollercoaster.”
“Things didn’t work out, I started not playing well, I started to not focus on my studies, kind of quit soccer for about six months to a year,” Neves said. “Took a gap year my freshman year. And then, I went and played for, the coach at my community college, who was a coach at division two prior [to that].
“So, I played with him for like six months and then I went to that community college with him,” Neves said. “And so, this guy I’m really close with; if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be playing soccer today.”
But having come out the other side, Neves has a new mentality that he attests has made him not only a sharper player, but a better person.
Viola and Neves may operate in different areas on the field, but the two – along with fellow eligible transfers Steven Catudal, Jose Andres Veizaga and Juan Camilo Abella – have been critical in helping the team add new players that could be leaders from day one.
“We’re like an immediate solution for [the coaches],” Viola said. “Because since we’re not freshmen, we already have the experience, we’re already come to be a name in the team. We come to solve problems.”
Those problems involve returning the program to the Big East Tournament, a feat which the Pirates have inched closer to achieving in recent years, but one that the team will fall short of doing again this year. And while the achievement of postseason soccer remains agonizingly elusive, Neves, Viola and company relish the opportunity to be the group that brings Seton Hall back to prominence.
“Some people would look at it like, you know I don’t want to go there, they suck,” Neves said. “Well, on the other hand, I was like, ‘Let me see if I can be that person that can fix things, or at least help things improve.’”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.