COLUMBIA — The Columbia College men's soccer team often plays with a serious focus on the field. After a big win, however, the players show a more relaxed and musical side.
On the bus home after a road game, or in the locker room following a home victory, the team has a tradition of belting out songs in celebration. The performance usually includes "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show, "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King and "Let Me Take You Out" by Travis Porter.
Often leading the way are the team's seniors, who epitomize the contrast between serious play and having a lighter side off the field.
Seniors Andres Acosta, Nikola Velickovic, Dan Rapp and Tom Vincenc will be honored at the Cougars' game Tuesday night, their final home regular season contest.
The four have become close, particularly Rapp, Vincenc and Velickovic, who have benefited from playing together on defense for four years.
Vincenc said the four of them take the game seriously but all have a lighter side when they are together off the field. He said that Rapp has a sarcastic sense of humor and the best dance moves.
Acosta is also quick to joke and give his teammates nicknames, including calling himself El Tigre after his favorite soccer player, Radamel Falcao.
Vincenc said that Velickovic has the most fun off the field but is also the most serious and competitive on the field.
"Nik is always joking around, and he's really enjoyable to be around, but when we're on the field he gets super competitive and is always serious," Vincenc said. "The gap between his personality on and off the field is pretty big."
Cougars coach John Klein said the seniors' attitudes on the field have led to their success and have set an example for the younger players. Their competitiveness in practice and striving to get better every time they step on the field has established the mindset for the team, Klein said.
"They've bought into everything we've done and set a terrific example for 21 guys to believe in our team," Klein said. "There's pride in Columbia College you don't see in every other team, and it has us moving in a terrific direction."
On the field, Rapp, Velickovic and Vincenc are all key parts of a successful four-year run for Columbia College, which has compiled a 56-14-8 record in that time including a 13-0-3 mark so far this season. Acosta transferred to Columbia College before his junior year, but has contributed significantly in his two years with the program.
The three fourth-year seniors also enjoyed a regular season American Midwest Conference championship in 2009, two AMC tournament championships and two trips to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament in 2009 and 2010.
"Going to nationals was definitely a highlight in my career here," Rapp said. "It's one goal of ours, and it shows you've accomplished something and gives some level of satisfaction."
Rapp and Vincenc are both from nearby. Rapp is from St. Louis and played high school soccer at Kennedy Catholic High School. Vincenc played at Fort Zumwalt West High School in O'Fallon.
The two played on the same club team, Lou Fusz Soccer Club, but Rapp said that he was unaware that Vincenc was also going to Columbia College until Vincenc saw Rapp's name on a mailing list before their freshman year. They have used the chemistry they gained by playing club soccer together with the Cougars.
The two each have different styles, but Klein said the two work together.
"Tom is a vocal leader and the brains of the defense, while Rapp is that blue collar type of player who gives 115 percent," Klein said. "He'll be dripping in sweat just 15 minutes into a game."
Velickovic and Acosta bring some international flair to the Cougars, a team that includes seven other foreign-born players.
Velickovic, who at age 26 is the oldest player on the team, is from Cacak, Serbia. At Columbia College he has become one of the most accomplished players for the Cougars in recent years. He was named to the NAIA All-American third team his freshman and sophomore year and second team his junior year.
Klein knows that he is coaching a talented player and that Velickovic's role on the team is vital.
"Nikola has steadily proved to be one of the best players in the NAIA," Klein said. "He's an indispensable piece and we're a different team without him."
Acosta is from Cali, Colombia and moved to New Jersey when he was 8. He moved again to Naples, Fla., at age 15 and played at Gulf Coast High School before moving on to Webber International, a junior college in Lake Wales, Fla. After two years at Webber, Acosta has made an immediate impact with the Cougars, being named the AMC Newcomer of the Year.
Acosta said he has enjoyed his time in Columbia, particularly the closeness of the team, which he attributes to its relatively small size. Acosta said that most teams he had played for had up to 30 players, while Columbia College only has 21.
"We all get along like a family," Acosta said. "I've never been a part of a team this close."
This season, the four have played central roles in what has been a successful regular season up to this point. The team is ranked seventh in the NAIA and has the best record in the AMC at 6-0-1.
Acosta, a midfielder, leads the team in assists with 11 in addition to scoring three goals. Velickovic, Vincenc, and Rapp anchor the defense that has given up 21 goals in 16 games and posted eight shutouts.
"Our offense is good, but our defense is our biggest strength," said Velickovic, who has three goals and an assist on the season.
Acosta said he is using last year as motivation. A 2-0 loss to Park University in last season's AMC tournament semifinals might have cost the Cougars a national tournament bid. Without the conference title, a bid was left up to the NAIA, which did not give Columbia College at at-large berth.
"It destroyed us that we couldn't take the five seniors on last year's team to nationals," Acosta said. "The rest of the guys feel the same way about us this year, and want to bring a magical season in our last year. It would mean the world to me."
Velickovic agrees and is making the most out of his final year on the team.
"I've loved being at Columbia College all four years," he said. "It's been an amazing experience and I'd do it again if I could."
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.