Ethan Faust Co-Sports Editor
Matt Pacifici ’16 doesn’t look like a kid anymore. A two-time captain and the starter in goal for seemingly forever, Pacifici is the elder statesmen for the men’s soccer program. Now back for year five, he is aiming to make the most of his final opportunity, hoping to lead the team to new heights in the Atlantic 10.
In the fall of 2011, Pacifici began his freshman year at Wake Forest as a highly touted recruit out of Charlotte. In his senior year at Charlotte Catholic, he led the nation with 21 shutouts in goal, including 16 consecutive at one point. Conquering the highly-competitive ACC was the obvious next challenge for a star from the southeast.
But on day two of preseason at Wake, his left wrist gave out when he went to stop a shot, something he’d done thousands of times. Soon after, tests revealed ligaments badly torn from years of overuse. Not only would he miss the entire season, but getting his wrist back to the point where he’d be comfortable making saves would be an uphill battle.
Along the recovery path, Pacifici decided he wanted a change of scenery. Still armed with four full years of eligibility after being given a medical redshirt, he chose to come to Davidson.
“I wanted to go somewhere I felt I could play at. But I also wanted to go a school that was going to have an equally competitive schedule,” said Pacifici. “And then academically, I didn’t want to downgrade at all. But I think I upgraded there. In my experience, Davidson is three times tougher than Wake is.”
The first practice with his new team that next summer provided the first big hurdle. Not only was he adjusting to a new program and new defenders, but he had lingering doubts about whether his wrist was truly ready. With the help of the training staff and coaches that were willing to take it slow with their new keeper, Pacifici’s faith in his wrist grew stronger with every shot.
Pacifici soon put the doubts to rest and seized the starting job. In the four years since his opening game against ACC foe Clemson, in which he posted his first shutout, he has started 54 times. Missing only a couple games in 2013, he has helped turn what was a leaky Davidson defense into one of the A-10’s best a year ago. Last year, his goals-against average was a miniscule 0.65, a Davidson record.
“Having [Pacifici] as the keeper behind our back line is extremely helpful,” said Matt Reinikka ’18, a defender who started every game of his freshman season in defense in front of Pacifici. “He makes it so much easier on our defense because of his constant communication. You can always hear him, and his directions are clear and concise. He keeps our group organized and tough to break down.”
This year’s Davidson team has 18 underclassmen, an absurdly high number for a team that hopes to contend for the A-10 crown. However, the veteran influence of Pacifici in goal can go a long way in keeping the team calm and composed. On the field, he strives to find the balance between critiquing and motivating each individual, knowing and predicting how teammates will respond. Through two games, there have been some mistakes on defense. But with two freshmen and two sophomores starting in the back four, it was always going to be a season-long process of maturation. Pacifici largely likes what he has seen, and appreciates that the underclassmen know nothing but success as the norm.
“[Pacifici] brings a degree of professionalism that is necessary for cohesion and growth on any team,” said Alec Rotunda ’16, a fellow senior on the team. “It is rare for [him] to accept anything less than excellence from those around him. His commitment to excellence is contagious and a great trait to have as a leader of a young, dedicated, and talented squad.”
Pacifici always knew he had an extra year of eligibility. Double-majoring in Economics and Spanish, adding an extra semester could allow him more freedom in class selection. When talking with the coaching staff, returning for a fifth year made too much sense for him not to take the opportunity.
But beyond the practical reasons, Pacifici simply wanted to stay in college. After interning with Bank of America Leveraged Finance in Charlotte this past summer, Pacifici wasn’t too keen on the real world quite yet. With unfinished business at Davidson, he arrived back on campus for preseason ready to make the most of the final semester. “You can’t beat [college,]” Pacifici told me with palpable excitement. “So if you can come back here, even if it’s just for an extra semester, why not?”
Having gone to Wake Forest originally to beat ACC competition, last year was especially sweet for Pacifici. For in 2014, Davidson was perfect against ACC foes, beating both Duke and eventual national champion Virginia on the road. Although a game against his old school Wake Forest was cancelled, Pacifici was thrilled by the results. In beating those schools, he was doing what he’d always wanted to do. Although when he transferred, he wasn’t allowed to go to an ACC school per Wake Forest policy, he was still doing what he’d set out to do.
This year, there are three ACC games on the schedule. After a 2-1 victory over NC State on Monday, Davidson still has games against Duke and Wake Forest. The return trip to Winston-Salem on October 27 will be especially meaningful for Pacifici as his collegiate career winds up.
Despite being a key cog in the dramatic improvement over the last three seasons, Pacifici has one glaring absence on the career checklist: he has never won a postseason game. After being knocked out in their first game of the SoCon tournament each of his first two years, making the A-10 Tournament in year three was a feat in and of itself. But the penalty-shootout loss to George Mason didn’t feel any better than previous years’ losses.
“I thought we had a really good opening season in the A-10, but one or two results didn’t go our way,” said Pacifici. “A lot of teams in the conference lost their top scorers including us, so I’d say it’s really kind of a free-for-all. Personally, I’ve never gotten out of the first round in any tournament here. So for me, I’d love to see us make a push in the postseason.”
When the season is over, Pacifici will say his final goodbyes to Davidson, graduating in December. Where he goes next is unknown at this point. Recent training experiences with the Colorado Rapids of the MLS and their feeder club, Charlotte Independence, suggest there might still be a place for him between the posts. He may go overseas armed with a fluency in Spanish, or he might stay closer to home. However, one thing is for sure. If the opportunity presents itself for Pacifici to keep playing soccer, the little kid inside him will not say no. The longer the real world can wait, the better.