(MetroNews Talkline interview with Vinicius Fernandes)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Players from eleven countries are represented on Marshall’s national championship men’s soccer team. Head coach Chris Grassie specialized in international recruiting while at the University of Charleston and turned that program into Division II title holders as well.
Junior midfielder Vinicius Fernandes hails from Brazil, where soccer is the national sport. Fernandez played his high school soccer in Connecticut and immediately bought into Grassie’s vision during his recruitment.
“I visited some colleges so I kind of knew what West Virginia was like. That didn’t really matter for me because once I came to visit Marshall and had my meeting with Chris Grassie, he told me he wanted to win the national championship. The only thing that mattered for me wasn’t the place, it was what we were about to do. I knew right there that Huntington was the place to be and that West Virginia was the place to be.”
The international collection of players has blended well in Huntington.
“We are best friends. They became my family. Being from Brazil, I came all the way to West Virginia, the U.S., and I ended up living with them and seeing them every single day. We have meals together. And they became my family.”
Fernandes was one of the eleven Marshall players on the field when Jamil Roberts scored the lone goal in overtime of the College Cup final against Indiana.
“I was right at the top of the box on the right side. So when Jamil put the ball in and he ran to the corner and dove in, I just dove right with him. It was an unforgettable feeling.
“We have aspired for this goal for so long. Now that we have finally accomplished it, I don’t know, we feel a little lost right now. We don’t know what to do. We are thinking about who will we play next. We are so focused that it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
The ‘golden goal’ followed 97 minutes of scoreless play. Marshall had the better run of play in the second half and the early minutes of overtime.
“That was the theme throughout the entire season. Every game in the first half we would play well. But then we would go into halftime and it was still scoreless, we just had this feeling that we were going to win somehow. We didn’t know how, but we were not nervous.”
Marshall lacked the brand-name recognition and pedigree of the traditional powers in the sport. Fernandes says the Herd entered the tournament with a healthy amount of confidence.
“They were all great teams with great players. But come on, we are as well. We know how good we are. They were good. But we were great.”
‘Running it back’ this fall
Following this most unique of college soccer seasons, the Herd will have a very short window to enjoy their championship. The 2021 season will be back on a normal September-December schedule this fall. Athletic Director Mike Hamrick acknowledges that Grassie will be a name of interest for other coaching opportunities.
“I think he likes it here,” Hamrick said. “We gave him a chance as a Division II coach. He was actually a graduate assistant coach early in his career at Marshall. So I think he understands and he knows Marshall. I was joking with him last night and said, ‘Coach, with all these players coming back next year, I think maybe I could coach them and get to the Final Four. They are so good’.”
“We need a little time off now because the season is very, very intense,” Fernandes said. “We put a lot of work in. I am going to Brazil now that I am fully vaccinated to see my family a little bit. In July, I will be back for the preseason so we can get ready for the season and defend the title.”
Hamrick was not pleased with the tournament’s initial draw that saw the Herd not only as an unseeded team, but slated to play No. 1 Clemson in the round of 16. A conversation with Grassie prior to the tournament put things in perspective.
“I was talking to coach Grassie about it and in his stoic look and English accent, he basically said, ‘Hey Mike, if we are going to win this whole thing, we are going to eventually have to beat those teams anyway. Let’s just beat them early’. He wasn’t joking. He was serious. Our players through the whole tournament felt the same way.
“After the tournament was over, I think the people that seeded the teams kind of scratched their heads and said, ‘Nope, this team should have been seeded. They are probably the best team in the country’. And we showed that we were.”