Bradley University women's tennis player Brigitte Graf is a feature writer for BradleyBraves.com. Below is a feature story on the four Bradley Soccer seniors who are preparing for their final regular-season game Saturday night when the Braves host Central Arkansas. In addition to the below feature, an abbreviated game notes packet is attached.
PEORIA, Ill. - It’s a bittersweet time of the semester for Bradley soccer stars Jochen Graf, Tapiwa Machingauta and Matt Kuehl. After several seasons of putting into their program everything they have to offer physically and emotionally, the three seniors will take the field one last time in regular-season play for the Braves Saturday night when Bradley hosts Missouri Valley Conference rival Central Arkansas in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Shea Stadium. The will be honored in a pregame ceremony, along with junior goalkeeper Raciel Ocampo, who is set to graduate in May with his degree in civil engineering.
All three athletes have grown to be recognizable and impactful members of the squad, but their beginnings here could not be more different from one another.
Machingauta, originally from Marondera, Zimbabwe, is the only senior who has been with the Braves since the start of his freshman year. He first heard of Bradley while still in his home country. It was a proactive decision of his to seek out an opportunity to play soccer for a university in the United States. With the help of the American embassy, he came in contact with several schools and eventually landed in Peoria where he has found success both on the pitch and in the classroom.
Machingauta made the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll in 2010 and 2012. He also was voted Bradley Newcomer of the Year in 2009, as well as making the MVC All-Freshman Team that same year.
“I’ve definitely matured a lot,” Manchingauta said. “The Bradley athletic department does their best to make sure you get a championship experience and the best education you can get. We’ve had some great mentors.”
Graf, a native of Dallas, TX, came to Bradley after beginning his collegiate career at SMU. An injury to his left knee caused him to take a medical redshirt that season, and differences with the head coach led him to seek a new situation.
Communications with head coach Jim DeRose of the Braves and a promising opportunity to develop as a player led Graf to Bradley, where he is the team's active career scoring leader and paces the 2012 squad with seven goals.
“I remember when I first got here, looking at the guys who were leaders on the team and thinking that that was one day what I wanted to be for this team,” Graf said. “You don’t want to be someone else, though, so I knew I was going to go my own way…it’s about being the guy that is ready to fight and stand up in any situation.”
Kuehl’s long road to Bradley started when he made the decision to return to the game of soccer after a three year hiatus. He joined a Division III program at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill., where his love for the sport was rekindled.
Hard work and intense determination characterized Keuhl’s comeback to the game. The fall of 2011 saw his debut with the Braves, and he has continued to be a force to be reckoned with on the back line ever since. Now nearing the close of his second and final season at Bradley, Kuehl has become one of the clear leaders of the team.
“I didn’t really expect that coming in,” Kuehl said. “I knew I had the traits to be a leader, but I never felt my game was up to it. But the guys all saw me working hard, and I worked hard every day. I think that’s gained me some respect from the team.”
The contributions these three leaders have made to Bradley soccer can be seen through records, stats and the overall atmosphere of the team. Throughout their time here, Machingauta, Graf and Kuehl have helped the Braves to a MVC Championship and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
It is the personal lessons, however, that the boys will take with them when the final whistle blows at Shea Stadium.
“People don’t give up on you, they keep supporting you and pushing you onward, even through the tough times,” Graf reflects. “Being involved in a team environment, that’s an experience that a lot of people don’t get to have. You have to be a smart worker, you learn to make compromises. It’s not always ‘your way or the highway.’ You have to take everyone into account.”
And that hard work ethic that is so characteristic of Bradley soccer is something that deeply resonates with each of the seniors.
“When you are working hard and the guy next to you is working as hard, if not harder, it gives you more of an energy,” Machingauta said. “It’s cliché to say, but hard work pays off. From everything we have been through, I think our experiences can speak for themselves.”
As they continue on to life after Bradley, Graf, Machingauta and Kuehl will take with them these and many other lessons. As for all Bradley athletes, the things learned on the field contribute to all things that are to come.
“What I’ve learned here is cutting corners isn’t going to get you anywhere,” Kuehl said. “If you don’t do your best every day it will show. It plays into work, family…never hide anything and never cut corners. And never give up.”
Ocampo, who already has a job lined up with Thomas Engineering Group upon his graduation, reflected on his Bradley career: "My time as a Bradley student-athlete allowed me to experience college from a difference perspective of both a committed student and an athlete. From my freshman through my senior year, the comraderie and friendships that I've established have been life-changing and have uniquely prepared me for my future."