Ask any soccer coach to rank the most important positions on the field, and center back will always be at or near the top. Center backs are typically the last line of defense before the goalkeeper, and they generally spend much of the game keeping an eye on the other team’s dangerous striker. The best center backs have the physical blend of size and speed, they are great communicators, and they have enough technical skill to handle the ball coming out of the back once possession is gained. One lapse in focus can undermine 89 minutes of hard work.
Fortunately for head coach Brendan Nash and the Bison men’s soccer team, they have had a “rock” at center back for the last three years. Senior co-captain Zack Rockmore, that is. Playing a position that has long been a hotbed for Coach Nash (think back to guys like Mayowa Alli, Pat Selwood and Mike Lookingland), Zack has played nearly every minute of every game since arriving at Bucknell prior to the 2014 season.
Zack began his collegiate soccer career at Boston College, but injuries derailed his shot at a significant role with the Eagles, and he made the decision to transfer to Bucknell. He was immediately part of a Patriot League championship team in 2014, and then last year he earned Second Team All-Patriot League honors.
Last week we sat down with Zack and chatted about his journey to Bucknell, that magical championship run, and what he has learned about leadership along the way.
BB: Tell us about the process of transferring from Boston College to Bucknell.
ZR: In high school I received some emails from Coach Nash. I was hurt my junior year in high school, so a lot of schools didn’t start reaching out until later. I had an ongoing hip problem, so I committed sooner rather than later so I could get the surgery out of the way, because I wasn’t really sure how I would be afterwards. I just fell in love with BC at the time. Obviously things didn’t work out for me there. In the process of trying to transfer, I got back in touch with every coach who had reached out to me in high school.
It was hard, because my sophomore year at BC was just kind of a dead period. When you’re not playing, there is no way to showcase yourself. But Coach Nash got right back to me and invited me for a visit to look at campus, and oh my, it was awesome.
BB: So you knew pretty quickly that Bucknell was going to be the right fit?
ZR: I did take a couple of other visits, but this was my first one, and I just remember telling Justin Galiani and Seb Blickman — they were my two hosts – “I’ll see you in the fall.”
BB: What was it that hooked you on Bucknell?
ZR: I loved the team, and I loved the way coach Nash ran things. My mom came and visited and she loved the school, which was a big part of it because she was always pushing me on the academics.The guys definitely welcomed me with open arms. I took three visits in the spring just to try to make that transition a little smoother. After my first visit, I took advantage of my Spring Break at BC to come back for a weekend, and then I also came back for the Alumni Weekend. I just wanted to throw myself into the Bucknell experience.
BB: How about the transition from a soccer standpoint? Was it hard fitting in on a new team, especially at such an important position?
ZR: Once we got into preseason that really helped. It’s not like I felt like I had already been on the team, but building those relationships was a huge help. Obviously the year worked out really well.
Sophomore year [at BC] was a big downer for me. I wasn’t able to play because of injury, and then once I decided to transfer I didn’t have anybody to practice with. So that was a long year without a whole lot of organized training. That can affect your confidence a little bit and it got me down. So it was great to be back on the field. More than anything, you just have to prove to yourself that you can still play and that you deserve to be out there. Once that comfort level came back and everyone was feeling good together, we were able to get down to business.
BB: What are some of your recollections of the 2014 season, your first at Bucknell?
ZR: That season was a grind. Probably my number one memory was playing like five games in nine days early in the season. We had a lot of guys on the team, but I remember thinking, “I don’t know if we are going to survive the season.” We had so many games, and not all of them were wins, and we had some injuries. We were just trying to play well and move forward. There was a stretch where we lost or tied a bunch in a row. That can get you down, but once we got the spark it was something special.
We had a lot of senior leadership. Those seniors, they knew how to get down to business on and off the field. Guys like Jono [Grad] and Brian Ward were great leaders. Seeing Jono going to the training room two or three times a day, you knew he was committed. The younger guys almost wanted to win more for the seniors than for themselves. That’s what a team is all about.
BB: You guys were the No. 5 seed at the Patriot League Tournament. You blasted Lehigh 4-0 in the quarterfinals, then got past defending champion Navy in penalty kicks in the semis before beating top-seeded Boston University 3-2 in overtime for the title.What a feeling it must have been to go up to Boston and lift the trophy on their home field!
ZR: Beating Navy was incredible on Friday in the semifinals. Once we got through PKs there, we just had a feeling. The championship game was wild. We weren’t really expecting to go up, get tied, go up again, then another equalizer. I had no idea how intense it would be. To win it in overtime was just an incredible feeling.
BB: You are one of three captains this year, along with Sebastiaan Blickman and Peter Krebs. What has that experience been like?
ZR: Seb is a much more vocal guy, and Krebs never stops talking, so we have an interesting three-way captain dynamic. We’re trying to cover all the bases, and I’m just trying to keep leading by example. We didn’t get off to the best start, and for the freshmen who haven’t been exposed to much adversity yet, one loss can seem like the end of the world. But it’s a long season and there is a lot of progress to be made before conference play.
BB: You have been an active member of the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute, and last January you traveled with two other Bison student-athletes to the USNA Leadership Conference in Annapolis. What have you learned from that program.
ZR: It’s definitely been a positive experience. The Naval Academy trip was incredible. It was one of those things where you listen to so many speakers, and you know not every one is going to be truly applicable to you, but there were definitely some speakers that leapt out at me right from the very first minute. Many of them talked about experiences that were far more significant than things that I’m dealing with right now, but it was really cool to listen and take home a whole weekend of exposure to leadership.
We just did a huge seminar where we learned about what kind of leader you are. You learn a lot about yourself. Before you can lead somebody else, you need to sort out yourself. It’s so nice having a sense of self, but also a plan to move forward and take care of your weaknesses and interact with different kinds of guys.
BB: Last year’s senior class was one of the most decorated in team history, with Jesse Klug and Chris Thorsheim garnering the bulk of the accolades. What did you take away from that group, and how is the team moving on without them?
ZR: There’s no doubt that class was special all the way around. Every single player, in some sense, you can feel the loss. Mark Kramarchuk didn’t get that much playing time, but he was the greatest player day in and day out in terms of bringing the energy and always working hard. He would smack guys around. Once he cut his knee open so bad you could see the bone. It wasn’t always the Jesses and the Thorsheims that broke records and put up the numbers. That class as a whole was so important to our program. Moving forward from that, it’s going to be a challenge.
Last spring was important for us in terms of moving forward. I don’t think we are there yet, but we are confident that we will get there. It’s a long season. We have a huge freshman class, and we are still working toward getting to the level that Bucknell soccer is used to operating on. Coach Nash continues to instill that in us every day. We know if we can make the playoffs, we have a shot.
BB: What are your academic plans for the rest of the year?
ZR: I am finishing up my senior year. When I transferred, only three-quarters of every credit transferred with me. I’m taking five classes this semester, so I had a few to make up. I am planning to graduate in December.
BB: What are your postgraduate plans?
ZR: It’s always been a lifelong dream to see how far soccer can take me. [Chris] Thorsheim and [Mike] Lansing seem to be enjoying Denmark. Mayowa [Alli] is over in Europe as well. I have been to Germany with some of my club guys. If I’m lucky enough to get an opportunity it would be hard to turn down. My first focus is on this season obviously, but I’m also trying to figure that out along the way.
BB: And when the day comes when soccer is no longer in the cards?
ZR: I’m an econ major, however I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’d like to try to transition into the business world. I’ve pinpointed New York City as a place I’d like to live and work someday. Just jump in and get a start somewhere and move up the ladder.
BB: Thanks Zack! Good luck on Saturday when the Bison host Fairleigh Dickinson at noon on Emmitt Field.