Kicking and Dreaming

By Dick Anderson Photo by Marc Campos

From its first SCIAC championship to a berth in the Sweet 16, Oxy men’s soccer soared to new heights this season. But Coach Rod Lafaurie and his players are hungry for more

By any measure, 2023 was a milestone season for Occidental men’s soccer—the Tigers’ first regular-season SCIAC title after 56 years of conference play; its first SCIAC Tournament championship; two historic wins in the Division III Men’s Soccer Tournament; All-SCIAC laurels for eight Tigers (First Team honorees Evan Karp ’24, Andrew Notter ’25, and Joey Schwartz ’23, and Second Team selections Oury Diane ’25, Lukas Howlett ’24, Vicente Navarro ’26, Riley Nyhan ’25, and Max Stanley ’25). Lafaurie and his assistant coaches (Brian Wright, Fabien Segalini, Ernesto Ramirez, Cameron Meeker, and Majid Saleh) received both SCIAC and NCAA Region X Staff of the Year honors—another first for the program.

The 2023 Oxy men's soccer team after winning the SCIAC Tournament championship
The 2023 Oxy men's soccer team after winning the SCIAC Tournament championship on November 4, 2023. Photo by Sam Leigh

On November 18, more than 105 minutes into the game, the Tigers’ season ended in a 1-0 double-overtime loss to Amherst. And yet, in conversations with Lafaurie and his players, there’s a sense that the Tigers could have gone even further.

“There are 415 men’s soccer teams in Division III, so even to be in the top 16 is pretty remarkable,” says Lafaurie, the Tigers’ coach since 2010. “Our season was obviously fantastic by so many metrics, but I feel like we actually could have won that game in the Sweet 16.” (Considering that Amherst reached the national championship game, the Tigers could have gone much further.)

The Tigers won their first SCIAC Tournament championship after reaching the final in 2018 and 2022. Pointing to those earlier squads, he says, “I think they could have also done some damage in the NCAA Tournament as well. We didn’t get the opportunity.” In the current Division III men’s soccer landscape, “You have to win the SCIAC Tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament.”

Not only did the 2023 Tigers win their way in, they did so by traveling to San Antonio, Texas, and knocking off two Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference powerhouses—St. Thomas and Trinity University—to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. “This year’s team was balanced and was going to be difficult to beat on any day,” Lafaurie says. “I never wavered from that belief. We were always going toward the target.”

The victory over Trinity “felt like a full-circle moment,” he adds—the culmination of a 10-year process that began with a conversation with Trinity coach Paul McGinlay following a 2013 campaign in which the Tigers went 3-16. “I made phone calls to a few coaches across the country who had successful Division III programs,” Lafaurie recalls. “Paul was one of two coaches who got back to me. I asked him, ‘Just how did you create this program at Trinity?’” McGinlay walked him through his process in terms of creating a culture, how to recruit, and so on.

The Occidental men's soccer coaching team
Oxy's award-winning men's soccer coaching staff: From left, Majid Saleh, Ernesto Ramirez, Brian Wright, Rod Lafaurie, Fabien Segalini, and Cameron Meeker. Photo by Kelly Young ’12

As Lafaurie recounted in Occidental magazine in 2021, he spent the winter putting together a book about things that are important to Oxy’s program: “What do we want to see out of our men? What are the controllable things that we can take care of? What are the targets that we want to hit?” The following season, the Tigers rebounded to finish 10-5-1 in the SCIAC, making the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.

Seven years later, the Tigers traveled to San Antonio, where Lafaurie faced his mentor on the field for the first time. That three-game excursion yielded three losses (to Trinity, Southwestern, and Willamette) to start the season—and in the aftermath of those losses, he admits, “I remember thinking that trip was a disaster.”

It was not until Occidental returned to Texas for the NCAA Tournament that he realized how valuable that experience had been. “Without going on that trip and knowing exactly what we needed to do—or not do—I don’t think we would have been as successful this year,” he says. Even when he first reached out to McGinlay, “The goal wasn’t to be like Trinity; the goal was to reach the point where Trinity says they want to be like Oxy.”

When Evan Karp of Portland, Ore., was looking at colleges, “I was interested in Oxy largely due to the class size, location, and the program that Coach Lafaurie had been creating,” he says. “Occidental fit my academic needs, and the soccer being played was progressive. Once I arrived on campus, I realized that the team culture was really the difference between Oxy and the other schools I was interested in attending. I have met some of the most incredible people in my time playing at Oxy, and I could not be happier with my choice.”

Men's soccer defender Evan Karp '24
Second Team All-American Evan Karp '24. Photo by Sam Leigh

In addition to being named First Team All-SCIAC, the senior psychology major was named conference defensive player of the year, First Team All-Region, and Second Team All-American.All of the individual awards that our team has garnered this year are a reflection of the work that we have put in starting in the summer,” Karp says. “There are numerous players who slid under the All-SCIAC radar who deserve recognition as well. At the end of the day, we can all say that we are proud of what we accomplished together.

“Every returner on the team knew that this had to be our year to make it to the postseason before the season had even begun,” he adds. “Last year’s squad was full of talent in the freshman and sophomore classes and invaluable leadership in the senior class. While most of the senior class graduated last spring, Joey Schwartz deciding to take a fifth year added to the leadership qualities and talent pool at our disposal this season.”

“I chose Occidental mainly for its ideal location in Los Angeles, strong soccer program, and the opportunity to connect with individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures,” says Schwartz, an economics major from Highland Park, Ill. With a year of eligibility remaining due to the pandemic-fueled cancellation of the 2020 season, the midfielder opted to return to the team after graduating from Oxy last May, sharing captain duties with Karp.

Men's soccer player Joey Schwartz ’23
Midfielder Joey Schwartz ’23 fends off a Bulldog. Photo by Sam Leigh

“We knew that if we worked hard every day and stayed focused, we could grow into a championship team,” says Schwartz, who this season received All-SCIAC recognition for the third time in addition to being named Second Team All-Region. “My role as captain was to lead by example and support all my teammates and make them better players and people. It was such a privilege to see how our team grew and got better as the season went on.”

Lafaurie lauds Karp and Schwartz for their role in the locker room. “There are just things that you can’t do as a coach that only leaders in the group can do,” he says. “We’ve had great leaders in the past, and these were the two correct leaders for this specific team.”

As we headed into the season, we were confident that we possessed the tools to make a deep run,” Nyhan says. “It was a matter of finding the right mix of players and establishing the perfect chemistry. Coach Rod and the rest of the staff did an excellent job cultivating training sessions that kept us hungry and consistently improving.”

After a 3-1 start against nonconference Division III opponents Texas Lutheran, Marymount University (Va.), and Lewis & Clark, as well as the Master’s University (NAIA), the Tigers opened SCIAC play on September 13 with an 8-0 victory over Caltech—the Tigers’ largest single-game offensive output since 2018. “I knew there was something special about our team,” says forward Marcus Chmielewski ’24. “We had quality, hunger, and had fun while doing it.”

Charlie Miller ’27 in action against Lewis & Clark.
Charlie Miller ’27 in action against Lewis & Clark. Photo by Sam Leigh

The Tigers’ mettle was tested in their next game, a road contest against Whittier. Trailing the Poets 1-0 with five minutes remaining, Stanley evened the score for Oxy. With just six seconds remaining in regulation, Christian Corcoran ’25 scored the go-ahead goal off an assist from Notter to win the game, 2-1. 

For Notter, who led the SCIAC in goals and was named First Team All-Region, the Whittier victory marked a defining moment of the season. “Christian has been my best friend and roommate for all three years at Occidental,” he says. “For us to combine in the final 10 seconds of the game—me with a very difficult pass for the assist, and him running the entire length of the pitch and blasting the ball into the top corner—was a moment we will forever cherish. As a team, this moment solidified in our minds that we had what it takes to win the SCIAC.”

For Karp, Oxy’s road game at Redlands on September 23 was “where I knew we would take it all the way.” With goals by Tyler Na-Nakornpanom ’26 and Notter and a strong defensive showing, the Tigers shut out the Bulldogs, 2-0, to improve to 4-0 in conference play.

“I had been to Redlands both my first and second year on the team and had yet to come away with a point,” Karp says. “As the two top teams this season, going to their field and dominating both in terms of possession and the scoreline reminded everybody of how good we could truly be.” 

Following a six-game midseason stretch that saw the Tigers go 1-2 with three ties, Occidental hosted Whittier on Senior Day—a game that saw Chmielewski return to the field five weeks after suffering an AC joint tear in the previous match against the Poets. (Three days after his injury, “with the assistance of Oxy’s incredible trainers,” Chmielewski strapped his shoulder together and hit the indoor cycle to stay in shape.)

In a Hollywood ending, Chmielewski found himself at the receiving end of what he calls “a fantastic cross” from Stanley, scoring the game-winning goal 57 minutes into the game. “The overwhelming joy of scoring such a crucial goal in front of friends, family, and teammates, especially after the uncertainty of stepping on the field again, made the moment truly unforgettable,” says Chmielewski, a psychology major from Pasadena.

After beating Redlands for a second time this season 2-1 on October 25 to move into first place in the conference, the Tigers still needed a win over La Verne in their regular-season finale to secure home field advantage for the SCIAC Tournament. “Our team showed great focus and determination, dominating the match with a 2-0 victory,” Schwartz says. “My parents flew in from Chicago to witness the final games, and scoring the goal that sealed the win in front of them was a special moment that I will remember forever.”

Occidental has led the SCIAC in attendance for men’s soccer games in recent seasons “by far,” Lafaurie says, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were in the top 25 in all divisions of NCAA soccer.” For its 2022 SCIAC Tournament semifinal vs. Pomona, 3,689 spectators were on hand at Jack Kemp Stadium—and a crowd of 4,200 was recorded for the 2023 championship game with Redlands.

To get there, the top-seeded Tigers blanked fourth-seeded Cal Lutheran 3-0 in the SCIAC semifinals on November 1, booking a spot in the championship game for the second straight year. Following goals by Notter and Chmielewski, Sebastian Romero ’24 used a diving header to score Oxy’s third goal, effectively icing the game with 30 minutes remaining.

“As Sebastian scored the header, I remember thinking to myself that we had achieved our goal of returning to the conference final and now it was time to finish the job,” Karp says. “I realized that this game would be what all of us seniors had worked for since we first started playing as kids, and we knew that we had what it takes to bring Oxy its first men’s soccer title.”

All that stood between the Tigers and a trip to the Nationals was No. 2 seed Redlands, which was seeking its second tournament crown in three years. After the disappointment of losing in the finals at Chapman last year, “Everyone shared the common goal of winning the conference championship,” says goalkeeper Nyhan, a psychology major from Seattle and Third Team All-Region selection this year. 

Romero came up big for a second straight game, scoring the Tigers’ first goal five minutes into the contest. Late goals in the second half by Diego Cavalie ’27 and Notter sealed the historic win, and the crowd rushed the field afterward, “creating a moment of pure elation,” Nyhan says.

“Winning the SCIAC title is something I’ll never forget,” Chmielewski adds. “Three years of challenges and hard work finally paid off. And to share this moment with the other seniors and the rest of the team, who worked so hard and sacrificed a lot, is a blessing and an amazing feeling.”

Occidental will lose five seniors to graduation this year, but expectations are already high for next season. “The goal is to defend our regular and postseason SCIAC championships,” says Nyhan, one of five All-SCIAC honorees expected to return. “While we may be losing some key pieces, I have full confidence in our team and coaching staff to adapt and continue reaching new heights.”

Men's Soccer Senior Day in 2023
From left, Joey Schwartz, Marcus Chmielewski, Sebastian Romero, Lukas Howlett, and Evan Karp on Senior Day, October 27. Photo by Liisa Halloran ’24

For the 2024 season, Lafaurie has scheduled Willamette, UC Santa Cruz, and Swarthmore so far. “The biggest benefit of our preseason, nonconference schedule this year was that it was hard, and we were able to come through it. That prepared us for the whole season. So, we’re going to try to do it again.”

Over the last several years, Lafaurie has tried to lure more NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents from outside the region (such as Texas Lutheran and Marymount University of Virginia this season) to Oxy by offering to help out with their travel expenses. “In the past, we would travel to other places to play these teams, because you need to see top-level opponents from different parts of the country,” he says.

Off the field, Lafaurie traveled to Brazil and Singapore on recruiting trips in the last 12 months, and in early December he visited Korea to scout a gathering of international school players. “The talent level at these events is really high,” he says. “All these players speak English already, and they want to go to school in America.” Upon returning from Korea, he attended the MLS NEXT Fest Tournament in Phoenix, a six-day event that showcases some of the top high school players in the United States.

“Something that we talk about in our recruiting is we have the best place to play college soccer in the country,” Lafaurie says. “When you factor in all the fans, a brand-new turf, locker rooms that are close by, and the quality of the men and the coaching staff in our program, what better place is there to play? That’s been our mantra in the recruiting process.”

Men’s soccer has benefited from the generosity of alumni, parents, and friends on Day For Oxy since its inception in 2020, raising $47,000 from 67 donors last year. “That allows us to have more equipment for training, buy the new goals on the field, and pay for pregame dinners and things like that. It even means we can buy brand-new soccer balls,” Lafaurie says. “All those little things add up.”

It takes a lot to stand out in a crowd of 4,200 at Jack Kemp Stadium, but Art Chmielewski—resplendent in his orange tuxedo and top hat and blowing into a vuvuzela like it’s the 2014 World Cup—proves the exception to the rule. A fixture at every Oxy men’s soccer game for the last three years, Art is the father of both Marcus and his older brother Lucas Chmielewski ’21, a Second Team All-SCIAC pick in men’s tennis and Oxy’s top singles player for two and a half seasons.

Oxy parent and superfans leader Art Chmielewski
Soccer dad and superfans leader Art Chmielewski plays a mean vuvuzela at Homecoming & Family Weekend. Photo by Marc Campos

A veteran of 15 space missions over nearly 44 years at JPL, Art has worked with 11 student interns from Oxy. “I’ve had students not only in engineering and computer science but also psychology and economics," he says. “They were all fabulous people and that made me also try to contribute something to the College.”

In tracing his evolution from supportive parent into leader of the superfans, Art cites three key factors that came together: “I work for NASA—I’m expected to think these things through.” Having played soccer at the University of Michigan, “I always wanted my parents to come to my game. I was MVP one year. And my stepfather and my mom never came. So, I said to myself, ‘Well, if Marcus plays, I’m going to show him the support.’ That was one motivation.” 

The second was that he read a Ph.D. thesis that examined more than 3,000 baseball, basketball, and soccer games in an effort to figure out why the home team wins 60 percent of the time. “To make a long story short, the outcome of this Ph.D. thesis was that it’s because of the fans,” Art explains. “The fans have an impact on the players who are more energized, and perhaps unconsciously on the referees who make better calls for the home team. So, here was an opportunity to truly contribute to the team’s success. 

“The third factor was when I went to some soccer games, I’d see these people who are mainly watching their kids nervously. And I thought: What if we turned this energy into happy, fun energy? And that was what I came up with—the vuvuzelas, the trumpets, the cowbells, the drums, waving the flags. Now everybody was happier. It was an event; it was a happening.”

My dad really turned Jack Kemp Stadium into the Bernabéu,” says Marcus, who turned down an offer from Division I University of Washington to play soccer for Lafaurie instead. (For the uninitiated, Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is the 85,000-seat home of Real Madrid.) “The atmosphere he orchestrated was paramount to our success this season. We had the most fans by a long shot. Anywhere we played felt like a home game.”

Even though soccer season is over, the parents remain in touch, according to Art. “We chat, we text, we crack jokes in emails and send each other pictures from the games.” And when soccer season rolls around next fall, look for Art in the stands—“as a consultant,” he says with a laugh.

“With just a slight bit more luck, we could have won it all this year—this was that quality of a team,” he adds. “But it’s not only about the quality of soccer—after all, you forget the scores after you graduate. This team was a group of friends. And that’s what Oxy is all about.”

Top photo: From left, Coach Rod Lafaurie, Marcus Chmielewski ’24, Riley Nyhan ’25, Andrew Notter ’25, and Evan Karp ’24.