Blake keeps sights on national championship

There is Alex Blake ’03, greatest of the Williams goal-scorers, immortalized in the pages of an October Sports Illustrated as the emblem of the College’s Div. III athletic dominance. He is hurdling a stunned defender, the latter stranded far below by a failed slide tackle. Blake doesn’t seem to notice; his eyes are trained on the goal ahead. More likely than not, the ball traveling before him will be buried there within moments.

How many times has this scene played itself out during the past four years? Nobody’s counting anymore – the number of defenders Blake has blown by like a cruise missile is inestimable. But one thing fans are counting is goals scored, and Blake has netted 78 of those, a record for men’s college soccer at any level.

The latest of these was netted on Sunday in a 3-0 victory over rival Amherst, earning Williams the NESCAC championship, Blake’s second in the past three years, his first as co-captain. In a season which saw surprising defeats to conference foes Amherst and Bowdoin, and in which some observers prophesied doom for the Ephs, this last victory, as well as its miraculous semifinal precursor against Middlebury, must have been especially sweet for Blake and his co-captain Dylan Smith ’03. Taken along with Blake’s individual achievements, it should serve to cement his legacy as the best men’s soccer player in Williams history.

“Alex, with his pace, his skill, is probably the best we’ve had here,” Head Coach Mike Russo said.

On the field, Blake is a relentless predator, armed with both skill and the unerring eye for the goal that all of soccer’s great strikers have possessed. Opponents seek to burden him with their best defender, and quite often their second and third best as well, but it is only on the rarest of rare occasions when this strategy pays off. Blake never takes his eyes off the prize.

“The number one thing that I’m interested in doing is scoring a lot of goals,” Blake said. “That’s always been my job, and that’s always what I’ve enjoyed doing, and that’s always what I’ve felt I needed to do for the team.”

According to Blake, nothing feels quite like the moment he blasts the ball to the back of the net.

“Scoring goals is better than sex,” he said. “It’s an adrenaline rush that’s so quick. It feels so good, like you’re on top of the world.”

And unlike Jagger and the Stones, Blake gets plenty of satisfaction. Nothing, apparently, can dampen his ardor for that feeling, least of all the steady rate at which he achieves it. Blake described the aftermath of a hat trick as a sort of post-coital bliss.

“After scoring three goals I’ll be very tired, because the adrenaline rush is too much,” he said.

There are rival NESCAC defenders out there smoking cigarettes and wondering what hit them because of Blake. The threat he poses also opens up opportunities for Williams’ other talented goal-scorers to bring opponents to their knees.

“All you’ve got to do is keep up with him,” Ryan Olsen ’04 said.

According to Russo, the attention opposing defenses shower on Blake often means open space in the middle and good looks on goal for players like Olsen and Khari Stephenson ’04.

Blake and Stephenson have known each other since their childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, where they played on youth teams together, and where Blake also first teamed up with Romel Wallen ’04, Marc Williams ’02 and Josef Powell ’02. The five would go on to form the recent Jamaican nucleus of Williams soccer.

Blake spent his first two years of high school at Kingston’s Campion College, a school with very strong ties to Williams College. Blake’s father, a “soccer fanatic,” then learned about Hotchkiss Academy, a New England boarding school, from friends who had settled in the region and pushed his son to pursue his soccer dreams in America.

Blake’s father has loomed large over his son’s soccer career. According to Blake, “he basically lives his soccer dreams through me. I think that if it weren’t for my father, I’d probably have a very nonchalant attitude towards soccer. I feel like there’s pressure on me to do well because of my father. It’s my drive and inspiration, but it’s also a pressure.”

Inspired by his father to leave Jamaica, Blake contacted the soccer coach at Hotchkiss, who, aware of Blake’s burgeoning talent, pushed for the acceptance of his transfer.

“Soccer was a tool I used to get myself into Hotchkiss,” Blake said.

Blake followed Marc Williams and Powell, who had attended Choate Academy, to Williams College and the Eph soccer team. Down on Cole Field for the first time, the brash rookie butted heads immediately with the veteran Coach Russo.

For the first half of the season, Blake rode the bench in mounting frustration. “[I was]not given the opportunity to really showcase my talent, because of the seniority scheme that was put in place within the soccer team,” he said. “That really pissed me off.”

Blake’s indignant attitude his rookie year won him few fans among new teammates. “I never really got along with most of the guys when I first got here,” he said.

Midway through the season, Blake’s fortune changed. Inserted as a sub into a match against Clark University, Blake scored a goal with his very first touch on the ball. During the subsequent celebration, the eyes of coach and player met, and something momentous may have passed between them.

“I looked over at the bench at coach, and I let him know I’m for real,” Blake said.

Blake remained in the lineup for the rest of his Williams career. That year, the team would reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Div. III tournament, and Blake would receive the NESCAC Rookie of the Year award. But Blake wanted nothing to do with the latter honor. If anything, it aggravated him further: “It didn’t matter to me. . . I thought I was looked down upon as just being a rookie.”

Russo, for his part, was not pleased with his striker’s attitude. “In the past maybe, when he came here, his individual goals were important,” he said.

The next season, Blake was firmly entrenched in the starting lineup, and responded by producing a season which garnered him NESCAC Player of the Year honors. The year ended on a bitter note, however, when the team blew a late lead against Rowan College in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, within sniffing distance of the national title. Blake cited the defeat as the most painful moment of his Williams soccer career.

The next season, Blake’s junior year, was one for the ages. He broke the record set by Brad Murray ’96 for most goals in a career at Williams by netting his 47th. Powered by the ridiculous striking duo of Blake and Teddy Giannacopoulos ’02, the playmaking of Powell and the defensive rock that was Marc Williams, the Ephs ended the regular season ranked third nationally in Div. III. A shocking first-round playoff exit put a damper on the festivities, but Blake walked off with enormous individual honors, including Div. III Player of the Year. According to Russo, the award “speaks volumes about how good a player he is.”

Russo and his greatest weapon have bumped heads on numerous occasions. “To say we’ve gone through four years with everything a bed of roses, that isn’t true, we’ve had some challenges,” he said.

Russo is quick to add, however, that Blake has made enormous strides as a team leader: “I respect Alex as a player and as a person. Over the years he’s grown immensely from a maturity point of view. . . I think he has subordinated his individual desires for the good of the team.”

As a co-captain this
year, Blake has helped right a ship that once looked destined for atypical adversity with all hands on board.

“His words carry a lot of weight with the guys,” said Smith, his co-captain.

All in all, it has been a tremendous end of a tremendous run at Williams for Blake. On Nov. 2, Blake’s father attended one of his son’s college games for the first time, and Blake responded with a hat trick in the victory. That combined with a fourth NESCAC championship and one last chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament mean that Blake’s Williams career is ending on a high note. A new career may be set to commence.

After his final Williams game, Blake will declare for the Jan. 17 MLS draft. Several teams are reportedly interested in picking him.

“There are a few teams that have Alex Blake as a secret, because he’s Div. III, and most teams aren’t looking at Div. III,” Blake said.

Right now, however, Blake and his teammates are focusing on the upcoming NCAA tournament. As an encore performance, Blake will get a final crack at that elusive Div. III championship. As storied as his career has been, it would be without a doubt the crowning achievement, towering far above all individual records.

“At the end of the day, individual awards don’t mean [anything]. It’s winning the title that matters,” he said. “That’s what people remember me for; that’s what I want to do.”

At the time, he was referring to the NESCAC title, and the Ephs then went and made good on his words. Now, with enormous momentum behind them, they hope to explode onto the tournament scene, led by a confident striker who claims to have learned beyond all else that, essentially, there is no “I” in “team.”

It seems the curtain will rise on The Alex Blake Show – make that the Williams Soccer Show – at least one more time.