In international soccer circles, they call Harold Gracholski the “Title Eater.”
The midfielder and the Lynn University men’s soccer team are one victory away from Gracholski living up to his nickname as the Fighting Knights tangle with Fort Lewis College in the NCAA Division II Men’s Soccer Championship game on Dec. 3.
Gracholski’s journey has been an interesting one en route to his career as one of the best Division II players in the nation. He never intended to play collegiate soccer in the U.S., but while he was studying for his undergraduate at the German Sports University in Cologne, Gracholski decided to spend a semester abroad studying at the State University of New York in Cortland. He noticed they had a soccer team, and joined the squad – a nice addition for the NCAA Division III Red Dragons. Gracholski ended up leading the team in scoring with 11 goals in 2009, and then returned to Germany to finish his bachelor’s degree.
“Once I got home to work on my undergraduate thesis, my coach [from SUNY Cortland] called me and asked if I wanted to come back to the U.S. to get my master’s degree and play soccer, and that he could help me,” Gracholski said. “He knew Coach [John] Rootes, and one thing led another. I got some offers from other schools, but I liked Lynn. I liked the program and the fact it was a small school. It was really spontaneous…I had to finish up my thesis in four weeks so I would make the deadline. That would usually take three or four months to finish, so it was all very stressful.”
Before coming to the U.S., Gracholski played indoor soccer, winning a national title in the 5-v-5 version of the sport. It was then he turned heads by German coaches for the emerging sport of beach soccer.
“While I was studying for my undergrad in Germany I was playing a lot of indoor soccer and we won the national championship,” Gracholski said. “The German National Team coach for beach soccer approached me after that because there is a high correlation between indoor soccer and beach soccer in terms of technical ability. From his experience, he found that players who are good on the ball are typically good in beach soccer as well. He recruited me and it was a great experience representing Germany and traveling the world.”
Lynn’s campus in Boca Raton, Fla., is near some beautiful beaches and Gracholski, and teammate Heiko Eberhardt, have shown the rest of the squad how it is done. The two were also teammates on the German National Team for beach soccer, which is played with bare feet, and toe injuries are very common.
“It is a great complement for my game,” Gracholski said. “It has helped me with balls in the air because beach soccer is mainly played in the air – not that much on the ground – so it requires a lot of technical skill which my game is based on.”
Rootes had not seen Gracholski play on the beach before recruiting him, but did happen to catch him playing in a tournament on Fox Soccer Channel after signing him. However, getting Gracholski to readjust back to the outdoor game proved to be a challenge, in addition to the fact his season was shortened due to injury in 2010. He started and played in just nine games last year, scoring one goal with four assists. This year has been much different as he leads the Fighting Knights with 11 goals, including seven game-winners.
“He struggled a little, and he was injured,” Rootes said. “He really worked hard…he has improved a thousand percent since he arrived at Lynn, adapting to the outdoor game. He makes the difference for us. If there is one player that you would say that about it is him … he’s the man.”
In addition to his stellar play on the field, the Daktronics All-America honorable mention honoree sets a prime example as a student-athlete. Academically, he is carrying a 4.0 grade point average as he pursues his Master’s in Business Administration, and was named the Elite 89 winner for the Division II men’s soccer championship – the student-athlete with the highest GPA competing at the finals site. He also speaks three languages fluently – German, English and Lithuanian – and dabbles in Spanish and Russian.
“It is definitely a challenge,” Gracholski said. “Before I came here it was my goal to finish with the highest grade point average possible. I always want to be the best in sports and off the field. I think Lynn’s environment really helps you achieve that because it is so small and the professors know you personally. It’s a lot of dedication and time management…just getting by was never an option for me.”
Dr. Ralph Norcio – the associate dean for Lynn University’s business school – has taught Gracholski in two classes, and the student-athlete has made quite an impression to the professor who also serves as the NCAA Faculty Representative for the school.
“I joke that there have been a few students over the years that I want to hang their work on my refrigerator because it is so well done in terms of the quality and concepts – he’s one of them,” Norcio said. “He is an outstanding individual – at some point if he isn’t the mayor of Cologne or the prime minister of Germany, I would almost be surprised.”
Rootes believes that Gracholski’s contributions as the team’s captain are just as important as his goal scoring ability. Lynn’s roster is truly a melting pot comprised of mostly international players with only three hailing from the U.S. Gracholski was named captain last spring, and Rootes has seen a big difference in the team.
“He draws them all together,” Rootes said. “He is the glue that keeps them together. It could be very easy for the German kids to separate from everybody else and hang out together. Harold is the common denominator and brings everybody together.”
“The combination of players we have – rough English boys, more technical German boys, some South Americans and a few Americans – it is a great mix and seems to work well,” Gracholski said. “It is also a great experience because you learn so much about people from other countries, and their mentalities. After the NCAA quarterfinals, we went past the stage of just being a team…it feels more like family right now.”
Gracholski and the Fighting Knights have one last challenge in front of them as they face Fort Lewis on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET at Ashton Brosnaham Park in Pensacola, Fla. The two programs have a history in the NCAA tournament. The Skyhawks defeated Lynn, 6-4, in the 2005 semifinals en route to the program’s first national title. Fort Lewis also won the championship in 2009.
“People who know Division II soccer naturally associate Fort Lewis as one the great teams,” Gracholski said. “It is a great challenge for us, but both teams deserve to be in the final. I’m hopeful we will show the fans a great game.”
Lynn is participating in its’ eighth championship game, and seeking its fourth national title. The Fighting Knights’ last NCAA championship was in 2003, when the squad posted a 22-0-1 mark. Lynn also won titles in 1987 and 1991.
“We know we’ll create lots of chances,” Rootes. “Even the games we‘ve lost this season, we’ve dominated play – we just haven’t scored. That’s going to be the key.”
It will be a meeting of two of stingiest teams in the nation. Lynn enters the contest with the third-best goals against average in Division II at 0.49, while Fort Lewis is second with a 0.39 mark.