Minutes before Vassar faced Union in the semifinals of the Liberty League men’s soccer playoffs, head coach Andy Jennings pulled senior co-captain Zander Mrlik aside. Jennings told his star defender he’d just learned Union striker Sebastiaan Jansen had edged him in the voting for Liberty League Player of the Year.
Then Jennings sent Mrlik out on the field and told him to shadow Jansen.
“I knew,” the coach said later, a smile creasing his face, “exactly what I was doing.”
Jansen failed to score a goal in a league match for the first time all year as Vassar advanced to the finals with a 3-1 victory.
Mrlik smiled too, when told Jennings had related the story.
“Yeah, no way (Jansen) was going to score that day,” he said.
Over the past four seasons, Mrlik has played with a level of skill and passion that has consistently astonished his coaches, teammates and opponents, earning second team NCAA Division III All-America honors this year, first-team league all-star recognition in each of the last two years and league Defender of the Year honors this season. As his career progressed, Mrlik learned to channel some of that fire to lead the team to heights it had never achieved before.
When Mrlik arrived at Vassar, the team had never come close to winning a Liberty League title. He leaves with two consecutive NCAA Division III tournament appearances, and he scored the game-winning goal against Tufts in the opening round of this year’s tourney.
Jennings said the team could not have achieved that success without Mrlik.
“In my 20 years of coaching and my 30 years at Vassar, I’ve never known anyone so important to his team – not just for his soccer skills but for how much he has grown in terms of leadership,” Jennings said. “The other coaches in the league call him a warrior.”
Mrlik said it was Jennings who taught him how to hone those leadership skills.
“When I first came here, I was a bit of a hothead,” he said. “I had to grow up.”
Co-captain Dante Varotsis said Mrlik’s soccer skills were obvious to him the first time the two practiced together as freshmen. When Mrlik was elected captain in his junior year, Varotsis said, “Zander continued to develop as a player, but he developed even more as a person. He led us to a dream season – we won the Liberty League championship for the first time.”
Varotsis said he and Mrlik figured out ways to divide their duties as co-captains this year. Varotsis was the quiet leader behind the scenes, sending teammates inspirational emails the day before games. Zander took over on the field just before the games began.
Varotsis said he’d never forget Mrlik’s short speech before the team’s opening round NCAA playoff game against Tufts on November 10. “He just told us he wanted to extend our season a little longer, to keep our time as a team going.”
Varotsis said it was fitting that the game-winning play against Tufts involved the two of them. “I was the guy who was fouled (creating a penalty kick), and Zander was the one who took the kick. I never doubted he’d score.”
But when he discusses his soccer career, Mrlik deflects talk about individual achievements like game-winning goals.
“In some sports, like baseball (Mrlik is a pitcher for the Vassar team), you can be the pitcher who throws a shutout or the guy who hits the three-run homer, and individual accomplishments matter,” he said. “In soccer, if only four or five or six guys are playing well, you’re going to lose. It takes the whole team.”