McVea embraces leadership role
It was a conference game in 2006. The Loyola University Maryland men's soccer team struggled in the first half against a key rival.
As coach Mark Mettrick and his staff walked over to speak with the team at halftime, they found the players already gathered around, listening intently.
Tennant McVea, just a freshman, pointed at each of his teammates.
"At the very least, we can work harder," McVea said.
That moment and those words have remained a vivid image in Mettrick's memory.
"To have their attention and to be saying the right thing at the right time, I remember looking over thinking, 'That's good,'" he recalled. "As a first-year player, he had the presence to say that at the very least, we can work harder. As a coach, I certainly like that. It was a good platform to start from."
And that was only the start of it. McVea, now a senior, was named a captain in the spring of his freshman year and has served as a guiding force for the Greyhounds on and off the field.
The defender played a major role in helping Loyola go undefeated in the regular season last year. The NSCAA recognized his contributions and named him a first-team All-American, the first Greyhounds player to receive the honor in 15 years.
This season, he was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watch list and is a finalist for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award.
But this season hasn't been without challenges.
The Greyhounds went 17-0-1 through their first 18 games in 2008. They were a nationally ranked, seemingly unbeatable team through the regular season.
The team earned every hard-fought win, but any college soccer coach will tell you that every once in a while, a game comes down to luck. If there was a favorable bounce to be had in a close game last season, it seemed like Loyola got it. This year, it felt like the opposite has been true.
Five of the team's six losses this season have been by a single goal. The Greyhounds (6-6-1, 3-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) are currently riding a three-game winning streak, but before that, they couldn't put together back-to-back wins. It was a rocky beginning for a team with big expectations.
"I was a bit upset about how things were going at the start," McVea said. "But we need to keep doing what we're doing. Come in every day and keep playing, keep working hard, keep the same mentality. [Maybe] the start of the season will inspire us a little."
Mettrick hopes his team has become better as a result of the challenges.
"His junior year, we got as high as top 10 in the country," Mettrick said. "Then this year, we've been a bit up and down, which is a different kind of challenge. But I think he's stayed true to his own ideals of working hard, focusing on the right thing and leading the team through a difficult period."
The importance of focusing on the right thing during a difficult period is something McVea knows well. He grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the ethno-political conflict, and religious prejudices marked much of the latter half of the 20th century as the nation's Catholics and Protestants clashed.
In high school, he was active in a cross-community volunteer organization that worked with kids to build understanding and promote tolerance. McVea and his peers sought to teach students that the overall differences between Catholics and Protestants are relatively minor ones.
"It was quite a big problem at the time," McVea said. "Cross-community initiatives in Northern Ireland needed to happen. Each side has preconceptions about the other one. If you're not exposed to the other religion and the other people, you don't know anything about them, and that breeds tension in itself. [Now] there's a lot less ignorance. That takes away from the violence. Ignorance bred a lot of the problems."
In 1998, the clashing sides entered into an agreement to work to end the violence through diplomatic efforts, which have greatly improved the situation.
"It's amazing because people have asked me does it affect me as much now that I'm here," McVea said. "I'm very passionate about where I'm from. I love being from Northern Ireland, and my family is still there. I still think about [home] every day. It's on my mind every day, so to know it's a more positive environment is great to know things aren't going to be the way they are when we were kids."
The situation has given McVea a true sense of appreciation, and he has continued to work to be involved in his community at Loyola, volunteering with the school's campus ministry program.
"I'm very lucky to have what I have," he said. "It's such a good school and a pretty good life, and when you give back a little bit, it's nice."
It's that attitude that has made McVea an example to his teammates.
"He wants to be the leader," Mettrick said. "He's motivated. He helps people. He's a hard worker. He naturally embraces being a leader, and that's been very important to our team."
It may have been a surprise to see McVea as a freshman gathering his teammates at halftime, but the sight of the Greyhounds' huddle around him now is exactly what Mettrick expects.
Around the country
Another player from the state of Maryland is making an impact at the national level. University of Maryland-Baltimore County sophomore Andrew Bulls leads the nation in scoring. With 15 goals and six assists through 13 games, the forward is averaging 2.77 points per game and 1.15 goals per game. The Retrievers are ranked fourth in scoring offense in the country behind his efforts.
The University of Connecticut jumped into the top 10 for the first time this season. After a few early struggles, the No. 10 Huskies have posted shutouts in their past eight games, improving to 8-2-3 overall.
Elsewhere in the Big East, Louisville continued its climb in the polls. In the Cardinals' last nonconference game of the season, they beat No. 25 Indiana 4-0 on Oct. 21. It was No. 8 Louisville's 10th shutout this season. The team is now 10-2-2 overall and sits atop the Big East's Red Division with a 5-2-1 conference mark.
Akron remains dominant. The No. 1 Zips are a perfect 14-0-0 and, in the latest NCAA rankings, lead the nation in scoring offense (2.77), team goals against average (0.15) and shutout percentage (85 percent).
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.