By Eric D. Lehman
Every year, students from all over America and all over the world come together to play soccer on University of Bridgeport’s Knights Field. In that way, the soccer squads are microcosms of the way that diversity and teamwork interact in the larger UB community.
“It’s amazing, because we hear so many different languages every day,” says captain of the men’s team, Lucas Sousa. “UB is a place you can experience a lot of diversity, first of all, and second of all, you can express yourself how you want to. It’s a place you can be yourself.”
“We have players from different cultures, different upbringings all coming together and forming, you know, the basis of a successful team,” agrees Coach Peter Doneit. “That will happen as long as they display the desire to want to be part of the team, to integrate with the team, and be selfless.”
After playing at Hartwick College and professionally in South Africa and Argentina, Doneit started as a goalkeeper coach for UB in 2001 before becoming full time assistant coach in 2008 and, finally, earning a promotion to head coach in 2017. “I had opportunities to go elsewhere,” says Doneit. “But this was always a special place.”
Doneit sees the work he does here as more than just chasing a championship. “We want to make the students, faculty, administration, and alumni proud. We want to bring something to the community, and lift a trophy,” he says. “But I am also looking for the best human beings that I can find.” He explains, “It’s easy to find guys that are skilled, but it’s a lot more difficult to find people that have good character.” As a coach, Doneit cultivates that by drilling the students every day, not just with on-the-field skills, but things that some coaches might overlook, like being on time and having good body language. “Everyone’s happy scoring goals,” he continues, “but when you hit a tough patch, and people are second-guessing strategies, that’s when you see how they deal with stress and setbacks.”
Playing a team sport builds that character, along with skills that help students succeed after college. “The most important thing in the game of soccer is your ability to think quickly and use your mind and see space,” says Doneit. “Too be able to exploit that and make changes on the fly you need people with a very high understanding and soccer field IQ.”
Center midfielder and business major Lucas Sousa was born in Brazil but has lived in Connecticut for several years. He was named Conference Player of the Year and first team All-Conference. “He has high field IQ,” says Doneit. “He can control the tempo of the game when we have the ball and be the spine of the team.”
“Soccer is a very organized sport,” says Sousa. “It is like business – if one thing goes wrong, probably other things will go wrong, too. You have to be able to communicate properly with teammates or people that you work with.” As center midfielder, Sousa needs to be everywhere on the field and act both defensively and offensively. “Seeing the whole field is very important,” he continues. “You have to be aware of all situations and concepts during the game.”
From the office next door, women’s soccer coach Tania Armellino echoes Doneit’s sentiments. “Character is everything,” she says. “It’s not even about the game. It’s about who you’re going to become.”
Armellino has only been at UB for two years after serving as head coach at SUNY Plattsburgh, but she grew up in nearby Milford, Connecticut. She clearly remembers learning about the great programs at the university as a child. “As a young person, my introduction to UB was soccer,” she says. “People who played here played at a great level.” Today, she calls her coaching style “player driven.” “It is really about the women,” she says. “They are at the forefront of everything I do.”
Those women include 16 players from 13 countries, as well as players from around the United States. And just like the men’s team, the focus on character and teamwork is paying dividends.
“My three years here have definitely taught me how to be a leader,” says one of the captains, Health Sciences major and center back Kayla Leake. “I feel like I found my voice. It translates outside of soccer, to the classroom and time management.”
Nursing major and center mid forward, co-captain Angelina LoFranco, agrees. “Being on such a diverse soccer team definitely changes how you view other peoples’ worldviews,” she says. “I can use what I’ve learned from the team and apply it towards my future.”
Kayla comes to UB from Maryland and Angelina from Florida, while the third captain, Psychology major Vivien Ruettgers, comes from Munich, Germany. She says that the UB team is “like a family” and has taught her how people from everywhere can come together in “the core values of the human community.” “Communicating is interesting with such an international squad,” she says. “Every country teaches soccer differently and so we have to learn how we can play off of each other and can play with each other, rather than saying ‘that’s wrong’ or just playing American soccer.”
The other captains agreed, declaring how strong the team culture is now. After winning the NCAA National Championship in 2018 and shutting down through COVID, the team entered a rebuilding phase that is still ramping them up to another run at the championship. “The people are the best part of UB,” says Leake. “The friendships I’ve built since freshman year will carry on past college for years to come.”
As captains, Kayla, Vivien, and Angelina also act as bridges between the rest of the team and coach. “You have to lead by example and treat your teammates the way you want to be treated,” says Angelina. Vivien agrees. “You have to impart good qualities, like positive mindset, hard work, organization, and kindness.”
Like Lucas Sousa on the men’s team, they praise the many skills they have improved while on the team. “We learn to take constructive criticism,” says Leake. “Once we leave college and get jobs, our bosses will tell us that something needs to be better. And we will be able to take that criticism and apply it next time and not get defensive or upset.”
“It teaches you how to recover when things aren’t going the way you want. If you’re down a goal, are you just going to give up? You’re going to have ups and downs,” agrees LoFranco. “Soccer teaches you how to face adversity.”
In that way and in many others, the soccer teams at University of Bridgeport are great examples of how sports fulfill our mission statement, by providing an international, culturally diverse, supportive learning environment that prepares graduates for life and leadership in an increasingly interconnected world. “I am building new relationships every year,” says Leake. “I’m learning how to communicate and connect with many different types of people from all over the world.”
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