Before former EDP standouts Biagio Paoletta and Max Jacobs put on the Tufts University soccer uniforms, head coach Josh Shapiro realized he had two special players, students and young men.
"They're both just exceptional characters and that's one of the things that makes it fun," Shapiro said. "As soon you started to correspond with them, you were drawn to their personalities. They were comfortable in their own skin already and that's only grown. They were excited and they were ambitious, and they wanted great academics. They wanted to compete fiercely in soccer. They wanted to have a chance to compete for real awards, trophies and championships and the like."
Both players competed fiercely and realized their dream for a trophy and a national championship on Dec. 7, helping Tufts capture its second consecutive NCAA Division III title with a 2-0 win over archrival Amherst College in Greensboro, N.C. on Dec. 7.
Paoletta, a Fairfield, Connecticut native who played for Shoreline FC in EDP leagues and tournaments , called it an "amazing, incredible experience."
"It's something that I will never take for granted," the junior center back said. "It doesn't happen to most people. Most people don't get put into this kind of environment, this kind of game. I talked to my team before the game and the nerves you feel in your stomach, that's pressure. Not many people have that kind of motivation, that drive on something you like to do. It's a feeling you're not going to have too many more times the rest of your life. You have to take advantage when you get it. Playing in it and celebrating afterwards is something that doesn't happen very often."
What made it more special for Jacobs, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey native who performed for the South Jersey Barons / SJEB Rush, was that Tufts avenged a New England Small College Athletic Conference regular season defeat to Amherst.
"It's great," said Jacobs, who tallied the second goal of the championship match in the 73rd minute. "It's unbelievable. We never won the NESCAC, never won a title in the same year. It's a little extra this year. We had a 20-win season [20-2-2]. We also have never done that before. It means a little something extra to beat our rivals in the finals and to do it in the fashion we did.”
"There was a lot that went on behind the scenes that a lot of people don't know about. It was a hard season for us. So, it means a lot to win, especially in the manner we did. We struggled a bit midway through the season. There was a five, six-game stretch where we dropped a lot of points, which was something that was new to a lot of us. We never counted us out. We just put our heads down and kept going. We just turned up to a different level."
Both players -- they're juniors -- learned and developed their soccer skills for their respective EDP affiliated clubs.
Paoletta, who has played soccer since he was four, competed for Shoreline FC in Connecticut from the ages of 14-19. His father played baseball and football, but he fell in love with soccer. "My uncle threw me on my cousin's team, who was a year or two older than me because I had nothing to do one Saturday," Paoletta said. "I stuck with them and have been playing ever since."
He said his coach, Danny Simpson, "did a great job of teaching us a more European style of soccer."
That certainly helped Paoletta, who said he was initially more of a physical than a finesse player.
"It made me a more well-rounded soccer player," he added.
The 5-10. 190-lb. Paoletta said he learned about making better one- and two-touch passes, knowing what he was going to do with the ball before he had it in possession.
"He pushed that on us so we could play quickly, play with pace, keep the ball moving," the center back said. "You make the ball do the work was coach Simpson’s bread and butter saying."
Simpson certainly left his mark on Paoletta and his teammates as the defender remembered an end-of-the-year banquet.
"Danny said some amazing words to us," Paoletta said, “giving us hope because most of us were going to play college soccer. It just gave us a little bit of advice, calmed our nerves. That last time together was definitely special."
Shapiro scouted Paoletta on Shoreline and obviously liked what he saw. The defender’s leadership skills stood out at one of Tufts’ ID camps.
"He's a guy who was more athlete than soccer player initially but the more you watched him you saw how he wanted to influence everyone around him," he said. "As a defender, your ability to be a general, to organize and to conduct players around you is such an important quality. He just has this sort of infectious effect on people around him. He was positive and drove people around him. He was positive with his inspirational play.”
"He wins a tackle and drives forward, and everyone gets fired up. He goes up and bangs a 30-yard header and everyone is excited. He just has that instinct of using those moments of driving everyone around him. He knows everyone on his camp team's name in five minutes. No one thinks that's important, but that's really important for a defender in the back to organize the guys around you."
In some respects, Jacobs took a similar path as to the one Paoletta followed. His father and grandfather played basketball in college and he followed in their footsteps before taking up soccer at nine. He eventually joined South Jersey Barons / SJEB Rush and stayed with the club for eight years.
Jacobs, now a 6-1 and 165 lb. forward, learned about versatility with the Barons.
"I was always small growing up, 5-2, 5-3, 5-4," he said. "I didn't really hit my growth spurt until my sophomore-junior year of high school. So, I was playing all different positions, playing out wide, playing up top, playing in the middle. I had the same coach all the 8-9 years, so he kind of knew all my ins and outs growing up. He used me what I was good at, at the time. I just definitely transitioned from being just another soccer player to somebody that my coach could rely on. It just made it a lot easier and really exciting just to play."
That coach was Cliff Simmons.
"He was great," Jacobs said, saying that the Barons were not an academy team with fulltime coaches. "He was a soccer coach, but I think he was also an accountant. So, when we had team meetings, we would actually go to his office at the firm where he worked. It meant a lot to him, but it also meant a lot to us. He was able to find that medium between both of his jobs and what he wanted for us."
Which was to develop players and young men.
Shapiro remembered seeing Jacobs play for his South Jersey team at a couple of tournaments before he attended the school's ID camp.
"It was those initial experiences that really showed me his quality as a soccer player," Shapiro said. "It was a good competitive team. He was one the better players on the team playing in multiple attacking positions. He was creative. He was energetic, he was positive, and he wanted to work in both directions. He wanted to be not just be an attacker. He wanted to be influential defending as well."
Jacobs and Paoletta are heading to Madrid, Spain for the spring semester. Jacobs is an economics major, while Paoletta is pursuing a bio-tech engineering degree.
"Once we're back in the states, it's definitely going to be nose to the ground and let’s get going," Jacobs said.
Whether it’s Shoreline FC, South Jersey Barons / SJEB Rush or another club in the East Region, Shapiro knows the value of EDP.
"Club soccer is the most important recruiting venue we have," he said. "We've done a lot. Our team has been dominated by Virginia to Maine type kids and we have a ton of EDP leagues and tournaments there. We've had a ton of success in Mid Atlantic to New England programs. Kids in that area have families that value education. Tufts is a name that people know in those areas. If you're a serious soccer player and you do your research, Tufts is going to come across your radar. We're recruiting against a lot of Division I schools and that's ok. EDP clubs represents a great place for us to look for our most talented student-athletes."
Founded in 1999, Elite Development Program Soccer (EDP) is one of the largest organizers of youth soccer leagues and tournaments in the U.S. EDP operates youth leagues for boys and girls ages 9-19, conducts a Futures program for players ages 7-11, and operates U20/23 men’s and women’s leagues. EDP also runs over 20 tournaments each year. The key emphasis for EDP’s leagues and tournaments is its Pathway to College™ programming which enables soccer players to reach their full potential with an emphasis on attending college. More than 3,500 teams participate in EDP’s leagues and more than 170,000 players compete in EDP tournaments annually. For more information on EDP, visit www.edpsoccer.com.