While two college soccer players honed their craft on the field, the very ground they stood on was torn out from under them.
This is the tale of Samuel Ilin and Huib Achterkamp, former Long Island University Brooklyn Blackbirds. And it is no exaggeration.
It was LIU Field and the home to a variety of LIU Brooklyn athletic teams that was torn from beneath their feet. $76 million later, it’s now in the process of becoming a high-rise building. Gone with it is the conference champion, NCAA tournament pot-stirrer, and historically professional player-producing Blackbirds men’s soccer program.
Marist men’s soccer was lucky enough to, as head coach Matt Viggiano puts it, “take advantage of a unique situation.” While acknowledging the magnitude of LIU’s decision and all the history that came with the Brooklyn outfit, Viggiano knew that his team had a peculiar opportunity to improve.
These are not your run-of-the-mill college soccer players. Not by talent, and certainly not by work ethic, as Ilin has shown time and time again.
Former head coach of the two players, TJ Kostecky, had plenty of stories describing the players’ character. One theme was overwhelmingly clear throughout each of them – Ilin will outwork just about anyone he might come to face.
The Blackbirds were in the midst of an early-season non-conference game last summer when their starting goalkeeper was forced out of the game with a dislocated shoulder. Ilin was not a real option to bring into the game, having just been injured himself in the game prior. While Kostecky prepared to put a field player in goal, Ilin pleaded his case to be substituted in.
Kostecky obliged, and the ensuing moments were a true testament to Ilin’s determination. The already injured Ilin came into the match, saved a penalty kick, and launched the Blackbirds into a nine-game winning streak while claiming the 2018 Rookie of the Year award. The winning streak culminated in a narrow loss to no. 12 ranked West Virginia University in the NCAA tournament.
A shame to have lost such a team.
Not to mention such a history.
“It used to be a cool place to play,” Viggiano said of LIU Field. “I played down there as a student-athlete, it’s cool… it’s literally a field in a city block.” Not only is the venue unique, but the program itself has produced some of the most well-known figures in American soccer history. Hall of Famers Joe Machnik and Giovanni Savarese launched their careers from the Brooklyn campus. The program’s all-time leading scorer, Ray Klivecka, went on to manage the likes of Franz Beckenbauer with the New York Cosmos in 1979.
“It’s iconic,” said Kostecky, the last coach of the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. “Soccer has been there since 1933. It is — it was the Ebbets Field of college soccer.”
Having coached at LIU Brooklyn for 20 years, Kostecky had developed a resilient culture in his locker room. After finally being delivered the news, in the middle of their season, that the Blackbirds would be no more, and that the soccer program would be merged with the school’s Post campus, his team was only more unified in their goal. They won the Northeast Conference final by the score of 4-0, cruising into the NCAA tournament. “So this is the program that the president folded, and this is the program on the field that would no longer be there.”
The mega-million dollar property sale is part of an even grander expansion project for the school, their largest such initiative since 1926.
Not reveling in this news, the Marist men’s soccer program did its due diligence capitalizing on such a shocking turn of events on Long Island.
Having just graduated defender Beau Hornberger, among others, there was a gap on the back line the coaching staff needed to patch up. Only adding to that need was the news that former Red Fox Ernest Mitchell would be leaving the program for Florida Gulf Coast University. “Ernie decided he was going to leave and we knew Huib was available,” said the veteran coach. Ilin’s commitment to come to Poughkeepsie in March was a driving force to bring in the Dutch defender as well.
With Ilin already locked down, Viggiano inquired about the possibility of getting Achterkamp to sign on. The team’s new goalkeeper had plenty to say about Achterkamp’s quality both on and off the field, and that was all the 13-year head coach needed to know to be all-in on him.
Viggiano is nothing if not a people person. His recruitment strategies rely much more upon word of mouth and personal experience than advanced analytics and number crunching. “I rely on my guys a lot,” he said in regards to recruiting friends and former teammates of current Red Foxes.
That rang true even for Ilin’s commitment process. Though he was a heavily sought after prospect once the LIU news became common knowledge, Viggiano first sought the counsel of players who knew him already. Ilin, being from New York and having played in the Red Bulls Academy system, had connections with junior Allen Gavilanes and redshirt junior Jonah Conway, but mainly with sophomore Skylar Conway.
Skylar helped the recruitment process from both sides, giving Ilin, “the rundown of how everything is here. He really sparked my curiosity,” the goalkeeper said. At the same time, Skylar detailed to his coach the qualities Ilin would bring to the locker room and team chemistry.
Fast forward to 2019 in Poughkeepsie, NY. August rolls in and the new season is just around the corner. Sam Ilin and Huib Achterkamp arrive at Marist just in time for preseason.
“I think I underestimated it a little bit, coming into a new team,” said Achterkamp. He found adjusting to Marist slightly more difficult than he did when he arrived at LIU last year. Part of the reason for that may be that Poughkeepsie is a very different place than Brooklyn. More likely, his adjustment was made dodgier by the quick turnaround once he arrived on campus.
“[The] first day of preseason training was my first time being here,” said Ilin, who had the same experience as Achterkamp. “August 14, we came for like, pre-team practice with the guys, we practiced with each other… then two days later, straight into fitness tests and everything.”
The two newcomers were thrown right into the thick of competition, with their first preseason game just six days after joining the squad for the first time. Every player on a team is in competition for their positions. But while Achterkamp slotted naturally into the freshly vacant center back spot next to sophomore Christian Curti, Ilin was up against reigning starter — and senior — Ryan Sinnott.
Though Sinnott’s stats from 2018 actually beat out most of Ilin’s from the most recent campaign, Viggiano made it clear that everyone knew Ilin had the capabilities while referencing the all-important “eye-test.”
“I obviously talked to Ryan [Sinnott] about it. He’ll be the first one to admit to you that Sam’s better than him,” Viggiano said, also noting that the two grew closer the more they trained together.
Not a single Red Fox played as many minutes as Ilin or Achterkamp did individually in 2019. The pair was indispensable. Their health and consistency are among the many reasons Marist was able to go to the MAAC Semifinals and have a trip to the championship game in their grasp.
It wasn’t just their defensive abilities that made this duo shine. By the end of September, Achterkamp had taken on a new responsibility, and a rare one at that. The Dutchman became the new Marist penalty kick-taker after Samad Bounthong and Gavilanes had each missed one.
“I mean I like scoring of course,” said the center back about winning the penalty kick-taker position. “If I missed the first one I was probably going to be out as well.”
But he didn’t miss. In fact, the defender finished the season with just one less goal than offensive star Gavilanes. Achterkamp’s final tally of six goals with five from the penalty spot helped propel Marist to their fourth playoff seed.
Oh, and I almost forgot. Ilin and Achterkamp’s performances in 2019 earned them MAAC Goalkeeper of the Year and All-MAAC Second Team, respectively.
Suppose they adjusted?
As is always the case with the Marist program, Ilin and Achterkamp are first and foremost “great human beings.” This is Viggiano’s prerequisite for giving a recruit so much as the light of day. Because, and only because, Conway spoke so highly of Ilin, who in-turn highlighted Achterkamp’s qualities, they were both sought after.
Because what’s most important to Viggiano and the men’s soccer program seems to be an infatuating sense of family. The culture in the locker room and a deep network of support for each and every player, by each and every player, is essential – nay – the cornerstone of what Viggiano has built for over a decade.
If nothing else, Kostecky’s last days at LIU explain the kind of players and men that Ilin and Achterkamp are. “Everybody was gone already… Several days I looked down on the field and I saw Sam on his own, working out, working, working his butt off.” Achterkamp receives the same high level of praise.
The place they once loved is gone. Taken from them.
They’ve found a new place to call home, though. And even more of a reason to leave their mark here.
Edited by Will Bjarnar & Dave Connelly