October 30, 2012 – It was October 22, 2011 and number twelve ranked St. Johns was hosting Big East foe DePaul. In the third minute of the game redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Rafael Diaz came sliding in to claim the ball in his box and dislocated his shoulder. This was a huge blow for Diaz who missed the rest of the season, while watching his team en route to a Big East Tourney title.
The 2010 Big East all rookie selection says of the injury that, “It upset me; especially being so late in the year it was very unfortunate.”
If you know the character of Diaz you would know he would persevere and be healthy by the beginning of the year. “I rehabbed every day. The trainers and physical therapist made sure I would be one hundred percent.
Rafael progressively worked his way back playing in spring season games with his PDL team. Diaz said he needed to “come back from injury in top form.” He stated, “That was my main goal; get back into the speed of the game and move past this injury.” If you watched St. Johns this year, you would have never known “Raf,” as his teammates call him, just came back from injury.
Diaz has had a phenomenal year, yet again, even improving on last year’s career numbers. The athletic keeper currently has a 0.67 goals against average and has played a major part in the Johnnies eight shutouts including those against the likes of number two ranked Akron.
A year like this has come with lofty expectations for the reigning Big East Champs. Diaz indicates the team goals are, “winning; the Big East Tournament, and making a deep run into the NCAAs. It’s something the current players haven’t been able to do yet.” He knows this task won’t be easy and reiterates, “We have to take it one game at a time, return to Red Bull Arena and retain the championship.”
Many may think these are big expectations for the Johnnies, but they are capable of reaching their goals. Diaz says they realized this moment early in the season at the Gamecock Classic. “The results set the stage for the rest of season. It was a team effort and we grinded it out.”
The Red Storm also had a scoreless tie against highly regarded Akron. The Johnnies traveled to Akron in search of a victory which may have seemed to some to be an insurmountable task. The Zips are led by a high-flying offense and to receive a result, St. Johns would have to be on the top of their game. They did just that, as Akron only attempted nine shots while Diaz won the KFC player of the match. Diaz played out of his mind, making four saves and earning recognition. “It was a great team defending effort and we stayed organized.” Many would’ve been satisfied about the result, but Diaz says, “We thought we could’ve won”
Rafael has a winning mentality that started long before he came to St. Johns. He was a two-time NSCAA High School All American along with being named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. Diaz also played for local academy club PDA based out of New Jersey. Diaz gives much credit to them, “It’s a great club and I had a great coach in John Murphy. You get to play at the highest level and it translates to the college game.” Diaz was in the national spotlight even before St. Johns as he made the national championship game on national television. His team was led by the shot-stopper himself along with current NCAA superstars, Connecticut’s Jossimar Sanchez and Notre Dame’s Ryan Finley.
From a young age Diaz was a superstar whether he knew it or not. The modest goalkeeper has continuously improved since his freshman year. Diaz evaluates himself by saying, “I’ve matured immensely. I’ve learned to keep my head down and keep working. If I give up a goal, I shouldn’t get down on myself, stay composed and continue on.”
Much of this success has to do with Coach Dave Masur. Diaz talked strongly about his choice to come to St. Johns and how Masur affected his decision to go there. “He (Masur) helped me out a lot. He’s intense and focuses on specific parts of my game.” On his decision to come to St. Johns, Diaz says, “It’s a great program with a lot of history. When I was recruited they were ranked number one in the country and Masur had a great idea for my future there and laid it out for me.”
Diaz made the correct decision as he already has a Big East ring which he claims is his biggest moment as a member of the Johnnies. “Although I wasn’t playing it was still a great moment. It was disappointing being on the sideline since I put in all the effort in training, watching game film, but the win still gives me chills.”
Another thing that gets to Diaz is walking onto the field at Belson Stadium. Belson is St. John’s soccer specific stadium, which remains a fortress that consistently gets crowds into the thousands. Diaz says the experience is “awesome.” He added, “It really gets you ready to play and the crowd gets behind us. You feel different when you’re playing there.”
Playing at home really motivates the Johnnies as they have five shutouts already at home. The other thing that helps the Red Storm secure shutouts is there impeccable defense. Year in and year out they always have a stellar defense. Diaz gives his teammates much praise in helping him out, “We have a good backline and everyone defends. It’s a team effort and everyone’s held accountable.”
When asked if he thought about his career after college Diaz said, “Of course, I think everyone that comes to St. Johns has ambitions to play professionally, but it’s still too early.” Along with that comment comes his modesty. Raf acknowledges his parents, and especially grandmother, for always being there for him.
Rafael believes in St. Johns and thinks they can go far this year. The Red Storm surely have the talent to make a run into the NCAAs, and with Diaz in net anything is possible.
Ben Roth is a contributing writer to College Soccer News. Ben.firstname.lastname@example.org