By Matt Jenkins
---- — Around this time last year, St. John’s Prep soccer standout Carter Ocko identified the University of Tampa as a possible college destination.
Classmate Ben Alpern, meanwhile, was just focused on making the Eagles’ varsity soccer team for the first time.
Now, after sensational senior seasons, both are headed to Division 2 UTampa to continue playing soccer. Ocko and Alpern will be attending on partial academic scholarships and will suit up for the Spartans next fall.
The opportunity to continue playing is not surprising for Ocko, an excellent sweeper for the Eagles who was both a Catholic Conference and Salem News all-star this year. Alpern has more of a Cinderella story.
“I always loved playing soccer; I just never thought I’d be able to play in college,” Alpern, a Beverly resident, said. “I thought maybe I’d get a couple more shots (to play) because it was my senior year. Other than that, I didn’t expect to play.”
Alpern spent his junior year in goal for the Eagles’ junior varsity team. He — and everyone else associated with St. John’s Prep — fully expected senior captain Brian Keogh to start in goal for the varsity this past season, but an injury opened the door for Alpern. The 6-foot-1 Alpern made the most of his chance, helping the Eagles to a 17-2-2 overall record. St. John’s advanced to the Division 1 North final, where it fell to Somerville in a 1-0 game, and Alpern joined Ocko as a Catholic Conference and Salem News all-star.
In 20 games, Alpern only allowed 10 goals and posted 12 shutouts.
“I didn’t think Brian would have gotten injured as severely as he did, but I was definitely ready to step up,” Alpern said. “It was a great opportunity and I thought I did a pretty good job.”
Despite his varsity inexperience, his Eagle teammates were confident in his ability.
“We knew he was ready to work for it. He would do a lot of work with (assistant coach) Edgar de Leon every day,” Ocko, a Danvers resident, said. “I think we had a good group of friends and we had a lot of confidence in him. We were confident in the team backing him up as well as his training with Edgar.”
Alpern was confident he could do the job, but he also felt comfortable between the pipes because of the Prep’s strength on defense. Ocko’s presence in the back put Alpern at ease.
“He’s a calming presence out there,” Alpern said. “He’s a great leader, but the best thing about him is he’s a hard player: tough, physical and on defense he uses that to his advantage. With a guy like that out on the field, it’s hard to not feel safe or calm.”
Ocko and Alpern each have relatives in Florida and both liked the idea of going to a warm-weather school. They both emailed University of Tampa coach Adrian Bush and sent highlight tapes.
Then in February, the Prep duo made a visit and practiced with the Spartans.
“I liked the level of play and I thought I could play (there),” said Ocko, who plans on majoring in economics. “Staying overnight I felt like I was in the right place, and that’s important when looking at colleges.”
The campus was also a big factor for both Ocko and Alpern.
“When I went down, I didn’t expect to love the campus as much as I did,” Alpern said. “I just liked the overall atmosphere and I have family down in Florida, which helped make my decision easier.”
It will take a lot of work for either Ocko or Alpern to crack the Tampa lineup. The Spartans play a high level of Division 2 soccer in the Sunshine State Conference, but both players are looking forward to the challenge.
“Obviously I have to earn my spot wherever the coach thinks I fit best: stopper, defensive midfielder, or even outside back,” Ocko said. “They actually graduated an outside back and a center back and brought in one or two freshmen. There’s going to be some competition to earn the spots; it’s definitely not going to be easy.”