The Eastern men’s soccer team saw an end to its spring season and early training, but newly appointed head coach Ronnie Bouemboue and the team know how important communication, camaraderie and positivity are during this time of uncertainty.
Bouemboue was hired Feb. 4 as the 10th men’s soccer head coach in the program’s history. Bouemboue recognizes the importance of building chemistry as a team and inserting players into leadership roles, from his experiences.
“I’m super excited and thankful to have been named the next men’s soccer coach here at Eastern Illinois,” Bouemboue said. “I’m excited to have had the opportunity to work with some of the guys, although for a couple of short weeks, and I’m very impressed with what they’ve been able to do in the program so far.”
Bouemboue continued: “Obviously no one could’ve seen this coming, having our first spring season together ending so abruptly. I would have enjoyed a couple more weeks on campus with the guys working together and getting to know each other as we continue to develop our relationship.”
Bouemboue thinks his players have done a great job of taking to him and the new direction the program is developing into. Bouemboue recognized the hard work his players have developed into their studies, and that while his players are keeping in shape, the No. 1 priority is maintaining the health and safety of his players.
To keep in communication with his players and for them to see each other’s faces, Bouemboue has inserted times throughout the week that players come together over Zoom and talk about what they and coaches are going through.
“I think when you’re talking about a team, there’s no better place to continue building relationships than going out and training every day,” Bouemboue said. “But obviously this situation has given us an opportunity to explore other ways to come together.”
Defender Arthur Bannwart had a similar thought to Bouemboue about the Zoom calls but with a player perspective.
“It (Zoom) is pretty interesting, the way we get to know more about each other and the way we are keeping the healthy environment as if we were together on the field,” Bannwart said. “I feel we will come back very strong as a team as soon this pandemic is over.”
Inside of these Zoom calls, Bouemboue asks his players revealing questions. The intent is for his players to go deeper and share things they would not share on a daily basis. Bouemboue also said players on the team have led smaller groups in getting-to-know-you activities that have been helpful to come together as a group.
Redshirt junior goalkeeper Jonathan Burke is one of these small group leaders.
Inside of some of these meetings, players analyze film of professional players that they compare themselves to and want to play like. For Burke, it was U.S. national team goalkeeper Zach Steffen.
“This helps improve the mental side of our game,” Burke said. “Obviously we are not all Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but maybe there are qualities in those players we can relate to. We also look at our weaknesses and how our player we analyzed plays on our weaknesses and how we can get better.”
The men’s soccer team consists of players from diverse places in the world. The 2020 roster consists of players from Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Spain, Switzerland and Brazil.
Players like Bannwart are already back in their home countries. Bannwart is from Sao Paulo, Brazil where the pandemic has started to take place, and the residents are handling the situation by staying home.
“There has been a fear of not coming back to America too soon as no one knows when this is all going to end,” Bannwart said. “But there is not much we can do besides staying healthy and in shape and psychologically ready in case all this situation gets back to normal before the next semester and our season starts.”
Bannwart finds positivity through his communication with his teammates and comprises most of his time with his academics, and the remainder is filled with working out, playing video games or watching television. Bannwart said his main focus is in his academics and discussed how important his family has been as motivation to him.
“Since the pandemic started, my main motivation came when I got back to Brazil to stay close to my family,” Bannwart said. “For us who are international students, the time we have in our home countries are very precious, so being close to my family, especially during this pandemic, brought me a lot of motivation to finish the semester online and a lot of positive thoughts that this is all going to end soon.”
When talking to Bannwart, it is easy to understand that family is a big priority for him. When asked about the message he wants to send to others, he said family, protection and self-reflection were among that message.
The NCAA has mandated that coaches cannot force their players into any physical activities due to the safety of the athletes. Bouemboue stated that his athletes on their own have the ability to do some forms of training if they have the equipment and space and are safe in doing so, but he is not pressing anything physical.
For Burke, it has been cardio, weights and working to develop skills at his feet. Burke has also read a lot of books to enhance his mental training. For Bannwart, his physical training varies between cardio and weights while also maintaining a healthy diet.
The two biggest things for Bouemboue are that his players finish out this semester on a high note in academics and that his players individually touch base with him and other members of the team. For some of his players, this is the first time that they, along with other Eastern students, are handling online classes.
“I think we have all made that priority for us to finish on a high note academically,” Bouemboue said. “Each and every single one of our guys are doing their part to make sure that happens.”
Bouemboue knows that being locked up at home takes a toll on people. All of his players touch base with him once a week and see his face and stresses. He tells his players that this is an interesting time for everyone and to reach out if they have any questions.
Bouemboue is proud of the leadership he has within his team. Some of his players have taken initiative to make sure the team can serve the community in different ways. One of the ideas is each player takes turns reading to second graders at Carl Sandburg Elementary School.
“This is something cool that we are doing to motivate not only the community, but the team,” he said. “The team can see the happiness on these kids’ faces when we join them on their class Zoom call.”
The first person to do the reading for the Panthers was Bannwart. Bannwart described his experience as amazing and interesting,
“It was one of those opportunities that we have to take, especially during these tough times that we are living, where it is necessary to spread positivity and kindness to others,” Bannwart said. “Sharing a bit of our lives and talking to the kids was the kind of experience that I hope to have more times in the future.”
The team posted a video to their twitter account that was made to encourage their fans and community. The video consisted of different players (Burke, Bannwart, Alex Casteneda, Alejandro Lurbe) and different languages (Portuguese, Spanish, and English) spoken throughout the video that encouraged hope, unity and strength during this time.
The video then cuts to clips of players passing the ball to each other and ends with Burke leading the huddle and breaking it with one phrase: EIU.
“My words of encouragement are to take some type of joy in everyday life. We are all stuck at home and feel helpless, but I think there are a lot of things a person can do to help them be better,” Burke said. “We are going to remember these times after it is all over and look back and say how did I grow during that time of hardship.”
Bouemboue’s advice is something he thinks everybody is probably hearing and doing. His message for his fans, readers and community was one of hope, and he stressed strength in unification.
“I think in times like this there is a lot of uncertainty and things we don’t know, but the only things we can do is hope for the best and listen to our leaders,” Bouemboue said. “Listen to our health experts, state officials, the officials that have all the facts and information, obey the social distances, stay at home when you can.”
Bouemboue continued: “My message to them is it’s a tough time and a tough situation, but we’ll get through this. I think we as a people especially in this country in times like this come together and we see that already. My message is to continue to have faith, continue to be strong, and we’ll get through this and we’ll come back stronger.”
Blake Faith can be reached at [email protected]