Team practice is looking a lot different for NJIT's men's soccer this season.
The time alloted has not changed. Under the rules of college athletics, players are limited to 20 hours of practice a week.
But according to team members, those 20 hours are lot tougher than last year's--longer runs, grueling drills, more sessions.
There's a reason for that: Coach Pedro Lopes. Hired this season with a goal of making NJIT's entry into Division One soccer a success, Lopes and his new assistant coach Javier Velasco have a major challenge ahead. With backing from NJIT's president Robert A. Altenkirch, they intend to turn NJIT into a soccer-loving school and the team into a winner.
As the Highlanders face their first Division One game Saturday, September 7 at Long Island's Adelphi University, the pressure is on like never before.
How do you take a team that won only two games last year and turn it into a winner?
"Our biggest challenge is that NJIT is very good academically, but athletics has not been seen as a priority here. We have to make athletics an equal concern to achieve success," he says.
That's the big picture. The more narrow focus is on creating a soccer team that plays with sustained intensity and teamwork.
Last year's game statistics show that the team has the raw talent, Lopes says.
"We do have the athletes, there's no question there," says Lopes.
But they were unable to translate their efforts into wins.
Their passes weren't sharp enough.
Their game strategy seemed often to be two steps behind the play.
"Players have to play within a system. These players were thinking too much as individuals, now they are learning to work as a group, with discipline and professionalism," Lopes says.
He says he's seeing a change of attitude already. "These players are eager to learn," he says.
You don't shoot just because you have the ball, he says.
You always play to your opponent's weaknesses.
You teach players to recognize certain situations and capitalize on them.
First he says, you work on the team's physical conditioning. "Our players have been injury-prone partly because they are taking longer to get fit," says Lopes,a Somerset resident who formerly worked as an assistant soccer coach at Rutgers University.
That means more long runs, more intense drills, and the expectation that players log time in the weight room on their own. Even routine passing drills have been stepped up in speed, to give the team a harder workout.
"Is it harder than last year? I don't know. I didn't ask anyone what they used to do. I'm concentrating on what we need to do now," he says.
A native of Portugal, Lopes says he grew up with a soccer ball in his hands.
His father was a fisherman and the family lived on a farm until they came here to live in the Ironbound Section of Newark when Lopes was 11 years old. "I missed the freedom of living in the countryside, but as a kid you adjust quickly. It was exciting to move," he says.
He attended Newark's St. Benedict's Prep and played there before attending Rutgers.
Assistant Coach Velasco, a S. Plainfield resident, is a native of Ecuador whose family moved here when he was 16 years old. He played varsity soccer at North Brunswick High School. He expects to spend much of his time recruiting, since the team has only 19 players compared to the 30 most schools have. Further, nine are seniors and they will be leaving next year. Most of the Highlander players are from soccer-loving nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, Haiti, and Ecuador.
The team's first home game is Sunday at 1 p.m. versus Millersville University.
Any season predictions from Coach Lopes? "I won't get too specific on games. But we're going to do better than last year. That's a promise."