Landmark Game Feels Like a Win
When Karina Gonzalez Perez ’25 returned to campus this past fall, she approached Assistant Director of Student Engagement Jack de Loos ’22 about getting the long running co-ed soccer club off to a good start. Little did she know that de Loos already had a plan underway.
Putney, Vermont’s Landmark College soccer coach had reached out to schedule a game. Knowing that students had been playing regularly at the end of the spring term, de Loos accepted.
“I knew everyone wanted to do it,” said de Loos. “How can you pass up an opportunity like that? It just presented itself, so we set a time and a date.”
When Gonzalez Perez heard the news, she was floored. She remembered that day in de Loos’s office during an interview the Thursday before the game.
“Is this real? I have been playing soccer ever since I can remember,” she recounted. “I have been wanting to play against another school for so long. It’s crazy to think it’s actually happening.”
With the game scheduled, Gonzalez Perez knew the club needed to take it seriously. She contacted Elio Jahaj ’18, Director of Special Projects for the Office of the President. They had played together during Sunday evening pick-up games and shared a love of the sport. She thought he would make a good coach.
Jahaj grew up in Albania, where soccer is a big part of everyday life.
“My uncle used to be a famous Albanian soccer player. My Dad used to play a lot in his childhood,” Jahaj said, who had played in high school and on the club team while a student at Bennington. “I love the game.”
Jahaj had a lot of experience playing soccer the Bennington way: off-handed and casual, no practices, a pick-up game once a week. Coaching, though, he admitted, was a lifelong dream.
When Jahaj accepted, Gonzalez Perez set about gathering players. She made a list of everyone that she had seen play, contacted all of them, and invited them to join. The response was strong. Jahaj was immediately impressed by how driven they were.
“That was the first surprising and heartening thing: that people wanted to practice for this game,” Jahaj remembered in an interview the Friday before the game. Of practice, he said, “a lot of people show up. They show up consistently. They have shown that they want to improve and that they want everyone to do well and the team to do well.”
Jahaj expected the game to be challenging. He noted that this was Bennington’s first and last game of the season. By contrast, it was Landmark’s seventh game.
“I think [our] team looks very good. We have some individually outstanding players,” Jahaj said. “But that is one of the reasons I love soccer. It is a game of averages, not of exceptions. And everything is decided in moments that add up to seconds. You want good chemistry with everyone.
In the 24 hours leading up to the game, Abe Dreher '26, Kayetan McEnereny ’24, and Joe Scott '24 measured and lined up the field, noted Jahaj.
“Xander Holt '19 and Jack De Loos in Student Life helped us so much in preparing everything,” Jahaj said. “It shows how much effort everyone put in making this happen.”
Friday after practice, Student Life hosted a pre-game party with donuts and apple cider as an appreciation of the team. Fans made cardboard signs of support to hold up at the game. Gonzalez Perez was particularly grateful for Student Life Coordinator Jenny Morgan ’20 and Holt.
“They both supported us so much throughout the journey,” she said.
Game Day Photos
By 2:00 pm on Saturday, October 28, 2023, the field was ready. The rain had mostly stopped. It was cloudy and windy but warm. From the soccer field, the beautiful “end of the world” view stretches out at a slightly different angle. The Bennington Soccer Club took the field in red and black uniforms hunted up from a long forgotten storage room and dusted off for the occasion.
More than 250 fans—including students, faculty, and staff—arrived. With only a few sets of bleachers at the field, students sat on blankets spread out on the grass while others stood. A group of students carried a canoe to the sideline to sit in as they watched.
Two goals by Landmark within the first few minutes of the game could have deflated the team and the spectators, but it seemed to enliven and embolden them. Bennington’s talent, skill, and ease with the ball belonged to people who had spent their whole childhoods and early adulthoods on soccer fields around the world. They ran hard and played hard. Whenever anyone came off the field, sweaty and breathing hard, they received high-fives and pats on the back from teammates and the crowd.
Few college soccer wins have been celebrated to as great an extent as Bennington’s sole goal, from Kayetan McEnereny ’24, at the end of the first half. From then on, the crowd was on its feet.
Students blew air horns and led cheers, including the classic “Give me a 'B'!” (A comical moment ensued when the crowd collectively realized just how many "N"s there are in Bennington.) Paulo Araujo ’26 danced up and down the sideline leading a chant. The absence of a big lit scoreboard made it easy to forget Bennington was four goals behind.
McEnereny drove hard and narrowly missed what would have been the second Bennington goal of the game.
Near the end of the second half a close-range penalty kick aimed squarely at Bennington goalie Selassiei Jordan ’27 ratcheted the tension for a moment. Jordan successfully thwarted the score, and the crowd went wild.
When the game ended, elated fans rushed the field. They made a tunnel of their arms and cheered as players ran through.
Jahaj’s measured “coachly” reaction was on point. He said, “It was a tough game. It showed that [Landmark] has had a long season and they are very prepared physically, but I am very proud of what we did. We had some good sparks. We consider some unfortunate goals at the beginning, but overall, I feel we did very well with the time we had to prepare. We are very proud of everyone.”
The players and fans were more enthusiastic. Gonzalez Perez was overjoyed.
“I am so happy. So many people came, and it is so nice to feel the support,” she said. “We lost, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Student fan Alecita Vouga Aguilera ’26 marveled how students from all over campus dropped what they were doing and came to the game.
“This is amazing,” she said. “We are here for this.”
“So much potential, really talented people, I feel inspired,” said Ethnomusicology Faculty Joe Alpar. “They really showed the skills that they had, and I love the rabid Bennington fan base.”
Staff member Cass Skarka ’21 said, “I haven’t seen anything like this happen at Bennington since I have been here. It’s amazing. And everyone is smiling, and the spirits are high, no matter the outcome.”
Junior and central defender Andy Kongolo ’24 said, “It is my first game ever at the college. I am very very thankful for the opportunity that [Landmark] gave us to play against them. It was very clear that they have been playing for a while, and this was our first experience. So I am just counting our blessings. We had a lot of good [plays], a lot of good things to work on.”
Kongolo was not alone in thinking of the future.
Striker Alexey Tarasov ‘24 said, “I feel great. We are going to get better as soon as we start to practice more and work with each other. I think we did pretty well compared to how much we trained, but I am really excited to play more.”
There’s talk of practicing and playing games in the Student Center throughout the winter and engaging students to design new uniforms. Jahaj has ideas for exercises and drills that will help players at different levels increase their proficiency. He’s hoping to get more—”hopefully, at least four games”—on the schedule.
“It is going to take some work,” he said. “What’s different now is there’s a team that has coalesced… consistent members and people that show up week in and week out. That’s very helpful in consistency and getting better and having some actual plans for what we might do next.”
In the rush of the crowd on the field, a tall dark-haired student found Coach Jahaj and asked if they could join.
“You can come to training,” he said. “Wednesdays and Fridays 4:30–6:00 pm. Here. Just show up.”