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Freshman Nigel Blackwood was mentored by former US Soccer legend Carlos Bocanegra with the U-18 National Team.

For most freshmen entering collegiate play, everything is new. New coaches, new facilities, new training and, most importantly, new teammates.

But before ever donning the Red and Blue, Nigel Blackwood and Gavin Barger were granted the special opportunity of training together at the highest level of junior soccer.

The Penn men's soccer duo was invited as two of 36 players to come together at the U-18 U.S. Youth National Team Training Camp.

“I thought it was a great experience, definitely made me a more well-rounded player, forced me to get better,” Barger said. “[It] made me raise my level, forced me to play at the best of my ability the whole time I was there.”

Split into two teams, the 36 athletes were exposed to some of their best contemporaries and the highest level of coaching in the country.

“It definitely exposes you to a lot of guys from around the country,” Barger said. “Guys you don’t get to play against [and] different styles of play that you don’t really see depending on where you live.”

The experience was not only a challenge for the pair of future Quakers on the field; both had to consistently remain mentally strong against some of the top competition in the United States.

“The main thing I could take away was that it’s one of the highest levels you can play at," Blackwood said. "So once you experience it, you have to remember it and aspire to play at it all the time. 

“It makes me more intense, more focused on the field because I know what the best players are doing, and you want to play better than them.”

To aid in that effort, the U.S. National Academy brought in some of the most accomplished and recognizable figures in U.S. soccer history. In fact, Blackwood recalled receiving individual attention from two-time MLS Defender of the Year Carlos Bocanegra.

“Bocanegra was the center-back coach,” Blackwood said. “He told me that you want to have a signature in your play, so for me it’s that I win everything in the air or be the organizer of the defense.”

Receiving an invitation to the camp is not only beneficial to the individual players, but also to Penn’s squad.

“I think it’s great for our program to be affiliated with players who are getting called to a national team camp,” coach Rudy Fuller said. “You know for them it’s ... exposure to the highest level possible in terms of games and competitions they might be playing in, but [they're] even in training camp with some of the best and brightest in their age group.”

Although all of Fuller's recruits tend to arrive to Rhodes Field after competing with some of the best at the high school and club level, there may be a distinct advantage to training at the U.S. National Team Training Camp.

“Nigel and Gavin, what it gives them is a lot of confidence,” Fuller noted. “Coming back to their club teams after that and then coming into college with far more confidence and belief in their abilities and play, [they made] the jump right away.”

This sort of exposure prepared Barger and Blackwood for the stress and competition of Division I soccer, while instilling in them the desire to succeed at the highest level.

“If you’re put under stress a lot and then put on stress again later,” Blackwood said. “You already have the skills to handle it. When you’re put at a high level again, you are ready for it again.”

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