It’s all about the culture.
Most high school athletes who are getting recruited dream of playing at a starting position and of making an impact on the field during games. For the past three years, senior defender and two-year captain Gavin Barger has done just that. But this year, his contribution to Penn men’s soccer has changed.
Since the end of last season, Barger has been hampered by leg injuries. While they weren't severe enough to completely end his season, shin splints have unquestionably limited his playing ability.
This year, Barger’s playing time has been diminished, coming off the bench in four out of six games after starting a majority of games the last two seasons. Still, his unique leadership role has been emphasized from the sideline this year.
Despite his injuries, Barger still fulfills, and exceeds, the responsibilities of his captaincy. Off the field, his impact on the team's culture is irreplaceable. On the pitch, Penn players hear him shout tactical advice and encouragement from the bench as if he's right beside them on field.
“He’s had to deal with a lot of injuries and stuff like that, but I think he’s adapted really well. He’ll always take his role, whatever that may be, as seriously as possible and put 100 percent effort behind it,” fifth-year senior and co-captain Joe Swenson said. “He’s not getting as many minutes as he wanted to because he’s getting off this injury, but he’s still the first guy in the locker room every day, getting guys going and helping the team in any way possible.
"We definitely miss him, but at the same time it almost feels like he’s there because he’s the loudest guy on the sidelines.”
Barger has played soccer all his life. He grew up in Fallston, Md., where he earned four varsity letters and served as team captain for Loyola Blakefield, one of the best high school soccer programs in the country. While many high school athletes pursued their dreams of a professional career in soccer by playing for an academy team, Barger elected to play for a regular club team, so he would be able to play for his high school team as well.
“I think it’s really cool to represent something bigger than you and yourself. On a [high school] team, you get to represent an entire school,” Barger said.
In college, Barger would do the same, once again representing something bigger than himself. The decision to come to Penn, however, was made primarily because of his future teammates, not the Ivy League reputation.
“I chose Penn because of the guys on the team. When I visited, I looked up to guys like [2017 graduates] Matt [Poplawski] and Alec Neumann who had this blue collar work ethic in everything they did," Barger reminisced. “It was the only school where I truly felt like I was at home and surrounded by players and coaches that would help me to become a better player, student, and person in general.”
While Poplawski and Neumann were the players that convinced Barger to come to Philadelphia, it has been Barger himself who sold the school to the next generation. For example, sophomore defender Alex Touche attributes his decision to come to Penn to Barger.
“He’s the type of guy you look at and you say, he’s a part of Penn men’s soccer,” Touche said. “He’s one of the main reasons why I chose to come here. Coming on my visit and seeing him, knowing that I’d be able to work with him for two years … he’s the type of guy you want to be modeled around.”
Across all years on the team, every player paints the same picture of Barger. Swenson, one of Barger’s best friends, adds more color to the frame regarding Gavin’s personality.
“I’d say Gavin is really outgoing as a leader, he really builds relationships with everyone. I think he does a good job of holding everyone accountable and he’s also good at talking to everyone on the team," Swenson said. "It doesn’t matter who you are, I think he has the same type of relationship with everyone on the team, where he’ll reach out to anyone, he’s not afraid to talk to anyone.”
At the end of Barger’s sophomore year, four of his eight classmates left the team. With the program undergoing a serious transformation, Barger's attitude, leadership, and friendship helped stabilize what was already a difficult time for the Quakers.
Junior co-captain Brandon Bartel remembers meeting Barger on a recruiting trip. At the time, Barger was a freshman at Penn, and Bartel was still a high school senior.
“On my official visit, he really kind of went out of his way entirely to take me under his wing. I had my host who was walking me around, but he was the one who woke up at 6:30 a.m. to come pick me up, to walk me down to practice. He walked five blocks out of his way to come pick me up and take me down, and this was all at 6:30 a.m. Once I put that to his actual personality, that was the most Gavin moment that he’s ever had,” Bartel said.
Maybe Barger’s actions could be seen as a ploy to convince a recruit to come to Penn, but if that’s the case, then he has been maintaining the ploy for every minute of the past three years. To his current teammates, he exudes care and empathy, no matter what level of experience they are.
“Personally, Gavin has helped me out a lot,” freshman midfielder Isaac McGinnis said. “I was injured for a little bit, he kind of took me aside and helped me get through that a lot through his personal experiences, so that meant a lot having him there as a captain.”
There’s no doubt that team chemistry improves a team’s success on the field. If teammates care for each other, work for each other, and play for each other, they will do better than a team of disconnected individuals. Gavin Barger’s passion for the sport, for his team, and for his school isn’t and will never be restrained to the sidelines.
“During the summer when we had freshmen and recruits come here for captains practice. We had like almost twenty kids in the house and he didn’t want them living anywhere else so he went out, made sure we had blow-up mattresses, clean and ready for them to use. And he sacrificed his own bed, just so he could have everyone as comfortable as possible, ready for practice, and be on campus already,” Swenson said.
“That’s just Gav.”