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'There's still the soccer team at Towson' — it just doesn't play any games

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To the vast majority of the world, it was just another intramural soccer game, played on a Friday afternoon before a meager crowd at Towson University.

Unless you'd followed the fortunes of the Towson men's soccer program, the names Grundei, Toribio and Mensah wouldn't have meant much. You'd have missed the mixture of joy and sorrow in their meeting for the university's intramural championship.

You see, these players thought they'd spend this fall striving for an NCAA tournament berth, just like their peers at Maryland, Navy and UMBC, who will play in second-round games Sunday.

Instead, they represent the remnants of a disbanded program.

Towson president Maravene Loeschke put an end to the university's long history with men's soccer in March, citing financial and Title IX strains in the athletic department. State officials swooped in to save the university's baseball program but offered no salvation for soccer.

Though three players from the 2012 team found places in other programs, many more stayed at Towson, where they persist as a sort of phantom team — still bonded, still in love with soccer but with no practices to attend or games to play.

Which is why the Oct. 18 showdown between Narp Life and Annoymous — intramural teams stocked with former members of the varsity — felt like a last, strange celebration of the program.

"It got really competitive out there," said Pierre Mensah, a sophomore from Kensington.

For the record, Narp Life, the team with more ex-varsity players, won 1-0. But former Towson captain Daniel Grundei, a junior from Germany, said he happily accepted defeat.

"Just to see each other out there, that was a lot of fun," he said wistfully.

Such moments have been far outnumbered by those that evoke loss. The former Towson players have loved soccer since they were small boys. And without the daily grind of practices and the beacon of games ahead, they have felt a bit empty in recent months.

For Grundei, the feeling hit most powerfully at the beginning of the semester, when he watched athletes from other sports begin their rituals of preparation.

"I would just sit in the classroom and think about what I could be doing instead," he said. "It hurts; I'm not going to lie."

For his roommate, senior Sammy Bangura, the feeling strikes in the middle of every day, the time he used to reserve for practice and workouts.

"Not a day goes by when that period of time comes without me thinking, 'Damn, I could be at practice right now,'" said Bangura, a goalkeeper from Laurel. "Even though we were sometimes at practice complaining, not having it makes you realize: I really do have a love for this sport."

The new abundance of free time is disconcerting, said Josh Toribio, a sophomore from Somerset, N.J. "Every day is a struggle," he said. "Every day, I think about soccer and what could've been with our team."

Toribio talks about it almost like a death in the family. "I learned that nothing was guaranteed," he said. "They basically told me I wasn't going to be doing what I've done my entire life. I couldn't believe they could just do that."

Frank Olszewski certainly understands how his former players feel. He had coached at Towson for 30 years and won nearly 300 games when the axe came down on his program. Olszewski still does administrative work for Towson on a contract that runs through the end of this academic year. And he has moved on to supervise all coaching for the Baltimore Bays youth soccer program.

"I've emotionally invested myself in other projects, so I don't have time to dwell on it," Olszewski said. "But I stay in sometimes daily contact with everyone. It's difficult at times. I think about what could've been."

His former Towson players come to work out with him at Bays practices. It's one of many ways they've attempted to remain connected with the game.

Toribio, Mensah and sophomore Joey Yeboah all played in the Charm City men's league. Mensah also became vice president for Towson's club soccer team.

Grundei and the other Germans from Towson's roster played for Pipeline S.C., another club program in the area.

Bangura has coached younger players and enjoyed it.

But none of it quite made up for coming together every day as a team.

"I don't want to compare it to any major tragedy, but to us guys, who have been doing this since we were five years old, it is kind of like a tragedy," Bangura said. "It hit us really hard. Some big part of our lives was taken away from us."

Virtually every member of the team has spoken with coaches at other schools about playing elsewhere. Goalkeeper Felix Petermann landed at San Jose State. Midfielder Ram Gilad plays at Montevallo in Alabama. Fellow midfielder C.J. Corey plays at George Mason.

Corey recently visited his Towson teammates, and they went to cheer him on as Mason played UMBC.

Mensah received a scholarship offer from Winthrop University in South Carolina, but he didn't feel he had enough time to make such a major decision. He has since decided to remain at Towson, where the in-state tuition is a relative bargain for his family. That means he'll have to content himself with club teams as his soccer outlet.

Toribio talked with two other schools throughout the summer, but in the end, neither offered enough money. He still hopes to transfer before next year, though he worries coaches will be skeptical the farther he gets from his last college game.

"I'm looking for a new team, a new start," he said. "I always have hope."

Grundei decided at the last minute not to accept a scholarship to Jacksonville University in Florida because of concerns about academic credits transferring. He plans to finish his undergraduate work at Towson this year and then play two seasons as a graduate student at former conference rival Hofstra.

"I'm counting the days until preseason starts," he said. "This is huge for me. It's what makes me go to the gym or go for a run. I've lived without soccer, and I don't want to do it again anytime soon."

For now, the players' strange existence at Towson continues. To a man, they say they enjoy social and academic life at the university. They appreciate the scholarships they've kept despite the demise of the team. Any bitterness seems reserved for Loeschke and former athletic director Mike Waddell, who made the initial recommendation to cut the program.

"I don't see it as not wanting to be here," Bangura said. "If it was up to the university community, none of this would have gone on. This was up to a very small group."

Toribio maintains a running joke with his teammates about the lack of resources for soccer. Whenever they see a new feature pop up on campus, one says, "Oh, that's where the money went!"

The players still feel most comfortable in their little fellowship. They live together, work out together and party together on weekends.

"That's our go-to-group," Toribio said.

"We'll always have that bond," said Mensah.

Most of them came to Towson because of soccer. Grundei left his home country for the program that would die.

Despite that cruel twist, he says he'll always think of himself as a Towson guy, no matter what happens at Hofstra or anywhere else.

"I've made so many friends, and I owe so many people here for the opportunity," he said. "We still consider ourselves a team. There's still the soccer team at Towson, in my opinion."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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