Binghamton University women’s soccer is a turnaround team
Binghamton coach starts third season with high expectations
In fall 2017, second-year Head Women’s Soccer Coach Neel Bhattacharjee spearheaded one of the finest sports seasons in Binghamton’s 17-year Division I tenure. His Bearcats went 11-3-4 in the regular season, won a share of the America East Conference regular-season crown and hosted a playoff game for the first time in eight years — one that drew a record crowd of 1,200 fans. Just two seasons removed from a rough three-win campaign, the Bearcats turned the tables and posted the most wins in 13 years and fewest defeats as a Division I program. Bhattacharjee (pronounced BAT-uh-CHARGE-ee) and his assistant coaches, Taylor Schram and Jackie Firenze, were collectively honored as America East Coaching Staff of the Year (Schram has since left to be assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast University). Bhattacharjee came to Binghamton in 2016 after successful coaching stints at Boston College and Syracuse. This spring, he sat down to reflect on the outstanding 2017 season and share his insights on the Bearcats’ soccer program and his own personal journey.
Q: As you look back on the 2017 championship season, what are you most proud of?
A: We had finished at the bottom of the conference the previous year and were picked to finish toward the bottom again, so we take a lot of satisfaction in proving to people that those expectations were wrong and that the expectations inside our circle were much higher. Wins and losses aside, I’m just so happy and proud of our team in terms of our culture. We had a motto that we used all year … of being “27 Strong” [number of players on the team]. We saw that group come together on and off the field and, as a coach, you can’t ask for more.
Q. When new coaches take over a struggling program, the rebuilding process is typically slow and the wins come last. How were you able to turn it around so quickly?
A: We talk, as a program, about the journey we are on and that it’s going to be a process, but if we stay committed, good things will happen. In the fall, we came in with a good fitness base, which is required for a running sport like soccer. We knew we had the talent, but talent can only take you so far. It also takes a little bit of luck, and you have to be healthy … our trainer, Kara Gorgos, was immensely helpful with that. But we knew if we stayed committed to our ideals and our process, good things were going to come our way.
Q: What drew you to the coaching position at Binghamton?
A: I was an assistant coach at Syracuse, and I grew up in Northern New Jersey, so I knew a lot about the University and I certainly believed in the mission of the school … to get a great education at a great value. I also knew it was a school I could recruit to because of the academics and the potential for a successful soccer program.
Q: What challenges does the team face this year?
A: The biggest challenge now is that we won’t be a surprise. Last year, I think we caught teams off guard because they might have had lower expectations for us. That changed a little as the season went on, but this fall we will actually be the ones with a target on our backs. How we adjust and react to that is going to be important. We just want to continue along with our journey … by no means were we a finished product last year. I think we are capable of taking it up a notch, both on the attacking and defensive ends and in terms of our team culture. If we can stay focused on those things, I think that we can have fun again this fall.
Q: What do you look for in a recruit?
A: The first thing we look for is that she is a great person and has the character that we’re looking for. We also look for a specific type of student-athlete … the type of student who can excel academically and deal with the academic rigors of Binghamton University and also the type of athlete who is going to be a good teammate. And then she needs to have the technical and tactical skills to be an impactful player. We look for a blend of all of these things and, in terms of character, we look for a person who understands how important our team culture is. We talk a lot about balance and how you’re going to be tested in the classroom as well as on the soccer field, but one will not necessarily come at the expense of the other. You can do both of these things at a very high level at Binghamton.
Q: What is satisfying about being a coach?
A: It’s seeing players take the next step. Even in my short duration at Binghamton, I’ve been really proud to see what our seniors have gone on to do. As a coach, to see them take the lessons they learned from the soccer field and being on a team and use that, whether it’s in graduate work or a career step, that’s the most satisfying part for me.
Q: How have you grown as a coach?
A: I look at some of the things I did when I first got into coaching and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe I did that back then!” So I have certainly evolved in how the message is given, whether that be word choice or tone. I also look at the bigger picture; I try not to let the small things bug me so much. The other thing, too, is that as I have grown personally, I think I have put the game in the right spot. I think a big part of that is fatherhood. I have two young daughters, and when I come home they don’t care if I’ve won or lost.
Q: Have you encouraged your daughters to play soccer?
A: I have encouraged it, but I just want them to be happy with what they’re doing. My 8-year-old has given it a shot, but I think we’re past that stage now. I think she is going to go the arts-and-music route now, and I’m definitely supportive of that. My 6-year-old is going along the soccer path and she has a lot of energy. She also has a number of friends who play, so I think a big part of it for her is social.
Q: How do you relax and decompress?
A: I have an hour commute, so that’s actually quite a bit of decompression time. When I get home, my focus changes right away because I’m with my wife and kids.
Q: What’s one thing you can’t do without every day?
A: I do have a morning routine … I have to have that cup of coffee, and I think things through. I’m probably most productive in the morning, whether it’s ideas for training or things that just roll around in my brain. I’m “off” when I’m late and have to rush, which is very rare since I try to avoid that at all cost.
Q: What’s one thing that most people wouldn’t know about you?
A: I have a musical side. I majored in music in college, and I’m a drummer and still have my drums set up in my basement. In college that was a big part of my life — and afterward, too. I was fortunate to perform at a number of venues up and down the East Coast, playing with different bands.
Q: Who are your favorite musicians?
A: Growing up it was Rush. Neil Peart was my idol growing up. John Bonham from Led Zeppelin was a big one. One of my all-time favorites was Stewart Copeland with The Police. I was very thankful that when they went on their reunion tour, I was able to get to see them live. Also, a lot of names from the jazz side … Tony Williams, I got to see him probably about a month before he passed away. I’ve probably seen between 400 and 500 shows, including everything from stadium tours to small venues where I was one of 50 people just checking out a new band.
Q: Which name gets mispronounced more frequently, Bhattacharjee or Binghamton?
A: (Laughs) Bhattacharjee, definitely. With Binghamton, it’s always either “Bing-Hamton” or “Bing-Hampton” like the Hamptons. With Bhattacharjee, the “h” throws people off. So I’ve heard “ba-HAT-uh-char-jee and “ba-HATuh- roch-ee.” The funniest moments are when telemarketers call. I wait for them to try to pronounce my name. It gives me a little bit of joy just listening to them attempt it. My dad and mom emigrated from India; my dad’s name is Himansu and my mom’s name is Kalpana. Actually, my full name is Neeladri, but I shorten it to Neel. At the soccer fields, I really enjoy it when other announcers come up to me before the game and ask me how to pronounce it so they make sure they get it right.