Community Key to Championship
On Dec. 5, 2022, Bethel University’s Men’s Soccer Team made program and school history by winning the NAIA* (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) National Championship, 3-1 over Mobile (AL) at the Jack Allen Soccer Complex in Decatur, Ala.
This was a first for the soccer program and the fourth NAIA team national championship in Bethel history, the other three being men’s basketball in the ’90s.
Head Coach Thiago Pinto ’05, ‘07, ‘11, who was named the 2022 Select Sport America NAIA Men’s Soccer Coach of the Year, is excited about what this win means for the program, but he’s even more excited about the platform it gives the team to advance the gospel – especially in closed countries, where sports can become an avenue to share about Christ.
“I tell the guys to enjoy it, but make sure we are humble and grateful. We also understand that there’s a greater responsibility with a spotlight on the team. My prayer is – how can this championship give us the authority and credit to have a kingdom influence?” Pinto says.
Pinto explains that a national championship win is a byproduct of all the hard work and character development that went into the season – something he’s focused on establishing over his 15 years of coaching.
“Setting up support and resources for the team has been a big focus for this year – an intentionality in scheduling and mentoring,” Pinto says.
Each year, the players receive a welcome letter/roadmap that sets intentions as the season begins. In this year’s roadmap, sophomore Samuel Thomas summarized what it means to be a champion:
“Winning a soccer game, even on the national stage, is a purpose too small to live for. We are capable of so much more than that. Trophies don’t make people champions. Champions are made within. Champions are not defined by their hardware but rather by their hearts. Champions are the ones who can commit to purpose, vision and roles along with their teammates,” he said.
Pinto explains that the values for the team include togetherness, aspiration and ownership, and that ownership, in particular, has been a strength that’s contributed to their success.
“We had the right [players], the right staff, mentors and leadership development. The result came from a lot of work over time,” Pinto says.
Not only did the Pilots win the NAIA National Championship, but their season record provided a bid to host the first and second rounds of the NAIA National Soccer Tournament on campus, for the first time since 2009. This event brought the Bethel community together to practice hospitality for the visiting teams and fans.
Athletic Director Tony Natali explains, “We were focused on excellence – from the hospitality to the locker rooms for the other teams, we were determined to provide a welcoming space for our guests.”
And while the weather in Northern Indiana in November can be unpredictable, no one could have anticipated the snowstorm that nearly canceled the tournament.
In order to keep play going for the November 14 and 15 games, the field needed to be cleared of snow five times. That took industrial-sized leaf blowers, shovels, snow blowers and an incredible show of staff and volunteer support to accomplish. Men’s Baseball Head Coach Seth Zartman ‘98, who also manages outdoor facilities, even slept on campus to keep the field clear for tournament play. At one point, the field needed to be cleared mid-game or the tournament could not go on. Natali explains that there must have been at least 30 people on the field with shovels – even the president asked to help.
“This was really about stewarding the space we have,” says Natali. “Community is the heart of Bethel.”
Pinto echoes this sentiment when he reflects on the success of his team over the course of the season and looks to the future.
“I’ve never seen this level of togetherness and honor [in a team] – honoring relationships, our community, our purpose,” he says.
This spring, Bethel Men’s Soccer Team will play the University of Notre Dame, IUPUI and University of Illinois Chicago in exhibition games.
* The NAIA serves as the governing body for the athletics programs of 250 small colleges across the United States. Bethel also competes in the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association), comprised of 90 schools in the United States.
Men’s Soccer Staff Awarded NAIA National Staff of the Year
Congratulations to the Men’s Soccer coaching staff for being named NAIA National Staff of the Year. They are (from left to right): Team Manager Charles Lwanga, Assistant Coach Romulo Nobrega, Graduate Assistant Felipe de Moura, Goalkeepers Coach Vern Gingerich, Head Coach Thiago Pinto, Associate Head Coach Mamba Chisoni, Athletic Trainer Doug Cassell and Assistant Coach Eduardo Ferreira. Graduate Assistant Jose Soutulo is not pictured.