COLUMBIA – At first glance, it’s just a small, dingy gray building with loose roof shingles and side paneling. Overall, it is completely unimpressive.
But last Saturday night around 9 p.m., its denizens brought it to life.
No. 3 seed Columbia College (12-5-2)
at No. 1 seed Park (12-3-1)
WHEN: 1 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Julian Field, Parkville
After a 5-0 beat down of Missouri Baptist in the quarterfinals of the American Midwest Conference tournament, the Columbia College men’s soccer team returned from R. Marvin Owens Soccer Stadium to celebrate in and around their locker room with music from Lady Gaga.
“Don’t call my name, Alejandro,” Lady Gaga’s voice sings from the inside as junior midfielder Brian Eike strolls up toward the entrance, munching on a slice of Domino's pizza with one hand and carrying the pizza box in the other.
Eike knows after a well-earned victory it is time to relax and sing a few tunes with the team.
Some might say Eike and company were getting ahead of themselves. They still had two games to win before they could repeat as AMC champions and return to the NAIA national tournament. Other teams would immediately start focusing on the next opponent — for the Cougars, rival McKendree.
But that is not this team.
The best way to get to know the Cougars is to see them interact together in their natural habitat, and their locker room does more than that. It provides a glimpse into their soul.
“I would say having that locker room, it definitely helps the team come close to each other and it’s really one big family in there,” sophomore defender Tom Vincenc said. “You can do whatever you want. You can sing, and it just shows how comfortable we are with each other.”
The team always listens to music in warmups, but the music has taken on special importance in and around the locker room during the past two seasons under the direction of Vincenc and junior midfielder Dylan Barduzzi.
“Dylan Barduzzi has his own ‘Stand By Me’ song and then Tom Vincenc has come along with ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ with Aerosmith,” freshman Adam McChesney said.
Thanks to Barduzzi’s efforts, Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is now a team tradition after every win. According to McChesney, Barduzzi had the team sing it on the bus ride home after beating McKendree 3-0 in the semifinals Tuesday.
Barduzzi said he and Vincenc are the choral leaders because they know many of the same songs, and they help each other to popularize a song the other is singing.
“We’re kind of partners,” Barduzzi said. “Whenever I push a song, I go ‘Tom! I need your help.’ And he does the same, and the guys start laughing.”
According to McChesney, techno music is also played. McChesney, with fellow freshmen Matt McKenna and Trey Bristow and sophomore defender Dan Rapp, have made a CD with rap and more modern music on it.
“We put in the techno,” McChesney said, to appease their teammates.
All of this was made possible through the locker room setting, and often the transformed hair salon is more telling of how the Cougars performed on the field than the most detailed press release.
After one victory, Eminem’s “I’m Not Afraid” triumphantly blares and the silhouettes of dancing Cougars flicker past the semi-transparent door. If they did poorly, silence reigns except for when coach John Klein’s muffled voice occasionally rises briefly during the postgame lecture.
“The locker room is just a nice place where we all just kind of joke around,” Rapp said. “It’s the first place we go to celebrate wins or kind of get out of there quick after a loss.”
Moreover, it is a sanctuary for many Cougars. It is one of the few places where they are vulnerable.
Both physical strength and emotional fortitude are required as athletes on the field. But the locker room is the sacred altar where they make their heartfelt confessions. It is where they can be young men unabashedly.
While sophomore captain Nikola Velickovic gives an interview after Saturday’s game, a voice from inside the locker room wails in off-key enthusiasm.
“Rapp,” Velickovic said, identifying the source of the interruption to the reporter.
But those who follow the team have only ever seen Rapp in his normal reserved and composed state when he is out on the field.
“It’s definitely a lot more business-like on the field,” Rapp said. “I think that might be part of why we’re so relaxed in there. Because it’s so tense out here.”
Velickovic also loosens up in the locker room and sings. The only difference is he gives his performances while showering next to his teammates.
In a rematch of last season’s AMC tournament final, the Cougars will play Park University at 1 p.m. Friday in Parkville. Last year, Columbia College edged out the Pirates in overtime.
“I’m planning on, hoping to sing some songs on the way home after the big victory,” McChesney said.
And if Columbia College does win, the locker room will again be host to the Cougars’ triumphant voices.