Vassar Today

Defender of the Year: Zander Mrlik ’13

By Larry Hertz
Zander Mrlik on the field
Zander Mrlik on the field

Minutes before Vassar faced Union in the semifinals of the Liberty League men’s soccer playoffs last fall, head coach Andy Jennings pulled senior co-captain Zander Mrlik aside. Jennings told his star defender he’d just learned Union striker Sebastiaan Jansen had edged him in the voting for Liberty League Player of the Year. Then Jennings sent Mrlik out on the field and told him to shadow Jansen.

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” the coach says later. Jansen failed to score a goal in a league match for the first time all year as Vassar advanced to the finals with a 3–1 victory.

Mrlik smiled when told Jennings had shared the story. “Yeah, no way Jansen was going to score that day,” he says.

Over the past four seasons, Mrlik has played with a level of skill and passion that has consistently astonished his coaches, teammates, and opponents, earning one honor after another, including All-American and league all-star honors and the Liberty League Defensive Player of the Year.

A history and economics double major, Mrlik was also named a First Team Scholar All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. As his career progressed, Mrlik led the team to heights it had never achieved before.

When he arrived at Vassar, the team had never come close to winning a Liberty League title. Vassar won the Liberty League title in his junior year, and the team was the regular season champion in 2012, earning NCAA Division III tournament berths both years—and he scored the game-winning goal against Tufts in the opening round of this year’s tourney.

Jennings says the team could not have achieved that success without Mrlik. “In my 20 years of coaching and my 30 years at Vassar, I’ve never known anyone so important to his team—not just for his soccer skills but for how much he has grown in terms of leadership,” Jennings says. “The other coaches in the league call him a warrior.”

Mrlik says it was Jennings who taught him how to hone those leadership skills. “When I first came here, I was a bit of a hothead,” he says. “I had to grow up.”

Mrlik met Coach Jennings when he was a star player on his high school team in San Francisco. Mrlik was widely recruited in his senior year, but he says he chose Vassar for two reasons: the school’s academic reputation and the relationship he formed with Jennings during recruiting.

Jennings’s coaching style impressed Mrlik. “Andy has a philosophy of giving the players a lot of freedom, bestowing an unusual amount of responsibility on them,” he says. “It’s easier to buy into a system when it’s a team decision and not something dictated by the coach.”

Mrlik says it was no accident that a Jennings-coached team was 15th in the nation among 300 men’s varsity soccer teams in academic achievement. “It’s about individual accountability in everything you do,” he says.

A lot has rubbed off. Co-captain Dante Varotsis ’13, a neurology major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says Mrlik’s soccer skills were obvious to him the first time the two practiced together as freshmen. When Mrlik was elected captain in his junior year, Varotsis says, “Zander continued to develop as a player, but he developed even more as a person. He led us to a dream season—we won the Liberty League championship for the first time.”

Varotsis says he’d never forget Mrlik’s speech before the team’s opening round NCAA playoff game against Tufts on November 10. “He just told us he wanted to extend our season a little longer, to keep our time as a team going.”

Varotsis says it was fitting that the game-winning play against Tufts involved the two of them. “I was the guy who was fouled (creating a penalty kick), and Zander was the one who took the kick. I never doubted he’d score.”

But Mrlik deflects talk about individual achievements. “In some sports, like baseball (Mrlik is a pitcher for the Vassar team), you can be the pitcher who throws a shutout or the guy who hits the three-run homer, and individual accomplishments matter,” he says. “In soccer, if only four or five or six guys are playing well, you’re going to lose. It takes the whole team.”

And its coaches. Jennings, student assistant coach Ross Macklin ’13 and goalkeeper coach Charles Wilder earned Liberty League Coaching Staff of the Year honors in 2012.

Mrlik says he is confident that Vassar’s success on the soccer field will continue. “I feel great to be leaving the program in the shape it’s in, in the hands of a really talented group of underclassmen,” he says. “It’s easier to win after you’ve won for a while, and we’ve seen the team get over that hump over the last four years.”