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Oct 31, 2007

Hokies dedicate their season to campus tragedy

It is a subtle reminder of the events that rocked their tight-knit community -- a small black patch on the shoulder of the Virginia Tech men's soccer team's jerseys. Not that the players need any outward symbol to remind them what this season means for the Hokies.

The memories of April 16 still are vivid. The morning began like so many others, with the team assembling on the field for another day of spring practice, heading to the weight room afterward to lift. These were the final moments of what life was like "before" at Virginia Tech.

The Hokies soon found themselves on lockdown in their locker room, with little grasp of the chaos raging on their campus.

"We don't have the Internet or anything in our locker room," midfielder Ben Nason said. "We were getting the occasional text messages from people saying things, but we didn't really know what was going on."

Once they had been cleared to leave the sanctuary of the athletic facility, the players learned of the events that forever changed their rural campus.

It has been more than six months since the shooting in Blacksburg that left 33 dead. The Virginia Tech community has sought to take strength from the horrific events that engulfed it and to honor the memory of the students and faculty taken by such senseless violence.

The men's soccer team, like everyone else at Virginia Tech, is looking to move forward, but the players also feel it is necessary to recognize the past -- after all, that is in part what is driving this team.

"After April 16, we, as a team, have come together more, we've pushed more, we've just tried to do everything possible so we can have the most successful season possible," defender Bryan Collier said. "We're playing for something more. Each pass, each run, there's a purpose. I feel this is an opportunity for us to give back to the community, to help them. That maybe our playing is allowing our community to heal."

That's because, Collier said, through winning, just maybe the Hokies can give this town, which spent so long grieving, a small reason to celebrate.

Initial aftermath

Coach Oliver Weiss cancelled all practices immediately following the shooting, giving his players the option to return home to their families. When the team returned, the players turned to each other.

"In the beginning, it was kind of crazy with everything that was going on," Nason said. "It was really afterward, when we got back and had this group where everyone was there for each other, that having the team there was the biggest comfort."

There never was any doubt the veteran players would return, but Weiss made calls to his recruits.

"I wanted to reassure them," he said. "They were seeing photos, and every news agency was trying to make a big deal out of that, showing the horror. ... [Still], people had to make up their mind about if they wanted to come here."

Stefan Hock was one of those recruits. As his native German television stations cut in with breaking news, the junior transfer couldn't believe it was his future school being discussed.

"I was shocked when I saw it, but I didn't think for one second about not going here," Hock said. "I was in touch with the coach and talked to him a lot, but I didn't hesitate for one second to come here. I think it makes the whole community and the whole team stronger."

Hock's response was not unique. While Weiss considered the possibility that some might shy away from Virginia Tech following the tragedy, the opposite occurred. Not only did recruits remain committed, but the team's summer youth soccer camps had so many applicants they had to turn people away. "You see people who have nothing to do with Virginia Tech embrace our school and show the colors," Weiss said. "From professional sports teams to dignitaries from foreign countries saying basically that this could have happened anywhere, we feel your pain -- I can't think of anything more powerful than that. It not only makes you feel humbled, appreciative, loved and cared for, but I think it also makes you want to become a much better person. That has trickled down to everyone."

Breakout season

To attribute all of the team's success to its desire to play for something larger than itself would be to sell the team short. Players have worked for seasons to elevate the program to this point.

The Hokies are in the midst of a breakout campaign, after having finished second to last in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season.

Virginia Tech currently is the No. 4 team in the country, riding a 13-game unbeaten streak and a 9-1-5 record. The Hokies' success in one of the toughest conferences in the nation is a testament to their prowess, and the team's only loss came in the season opener against Virginia Commonwealth.

"People are now realizing what we're capable of, so it's very different when they face us," junior forward Patrick Nyarko said. "Teams are now coming in very physical. They come in with a good plan to shut down our offense, which is very tough to stop when we get going."

The team is deeper than in previous years. Game-winning or -tying goals have been as likely to come from bench players as from starters. The team has shown maturity and poise by coming back in late-game situations.

"This year, the improvement has been pretty much across the board," Nason said. "Talent. Maturity. Mentality. Everything."

For Nason -- a redshirt senior -- and others who have been part of the program as it has struggled and grown, this season is a source of pride.

"We've always been a team that has been the underdog," Weiss said. "We're rarely ranked. We hardly get any all-conference selections. We've just sort of been, 'Well, they're in the ACC, and they're OK.' So we've played the underdog, and we've used that and won a lot of games against much higher ranked teams. Now, we're transitioning from [being in that role] to working toward who we want to become. This is the next step."

An influx of international talent is helping the team as it works to progress. This year's roster includes players from Ghana, England, Germany, Canada and the United States.

"We take the best things from every country's style, and hopefully, it's a very good combination," Hock said. "That's one of our biggest strengths."

The bigger picture

The goals for Virginia Tech are relatively simple. The team is looking to continue its winning ways while finishing up the regular season. The Hokies hope to win a game in the ACC tournament, an accomplishment that has eluded them the past few seasons. Then, there is the NCAA tournament, where the team hopes to bring positive national attention to Virginia Tech.

Even if the men's soccer team falls short of its goals, the players know it will not be a total loss. Their school has experienced a real tragedy, and it has nothing to do with the outcome of a game.

"Every time we get on the field, we should know who we are playing for," Nyarko said. "We're representing the school, we're representing those who lost their lives, their families. Every time we look at those patches on our jerseys, we should remember what happened, and that should give us drive."

It definitely has so far.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.