Note: The following appears in the September issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
Austen Burnikel was exposed to Clemson men’s soccer while he was still very young growing up in nearby Greenville, S.C. He attended Clemson soccer camps as a kid and knew from a young age that he wanted to play for the Tigers. When Burnikel describes his early love of Clemson soccer, one memory comes to mind.
“When I was in second or third grade, I went to a Clemson game at Furman and Clemson won 2-1 in overtime,” recalled Burnikel. “The next day, I remember trying to redraw the play in which Clemson scored the game-winning goal over and over.”
Burnikel grew up playing soccer with his two siblings, his older brother, Alex, and his younger brother, Andrew. When Austen was in high school, Alex was recruited to play soccer at Clemson and enrolled as a freshman in 2011.
“Growing up in the Upstate, you see Clemson everywhere. It’s a huge deal to go to Clemson in this area. My brother was a few years ahead of me and I fell in love with the program through him. I talked to him about it, asked him questions and came to every game.”
So when it was time for Austen to make his college decision, there was really only one choice.
Austen chose the orange and purple, and soon after, his younger brother followed suit. There has been a Burnikel brother on the Clemson men’s soccer roster every season since 2011. Andrew is currently a redshirt freshman and therefore, the Clemson roster could feature a Burnikel until 2019.
Austen did not get the chance to play with Alex, who had to retire after his sophomore season due to knee injuries, but he does currently share the field with Andrew.
“When we’re in the locker room or on the field, Andrew is my brother, but he is also my teammate. However, I’m so close with everyone else on the team that you could say they are all my brothers.”
The bond between Austen and Andrew is to be expected. They are actually brothers, both love soccer and have spent many years playing the game they love together, most recently as members of the Clemson soccer team. What isn’t to be expected is that Austen feels the same way about his teammates as he does about the guy with whom he shares a last name.
“Our team isn’t close in the sense that we’re buddies and we like to hang out,” explained Burnikel. “We’re close in the sense that we genuinely care for each other. This team is my second family and the term ‘Clemson Family’ most definitely applies to us.”
One key component of the brotherhood that defines Clemson men’s soccer is leadership, and specifically how leadership roles are passed down from class to class every year. As a senior and team captain this season, it is now Austen’s turn to take up the leadership mantle and protect the culture that so many players before him have worked extremely hard to create.
“The most important thing I learned from our seniors last year was staying the course through adversity. Throughout last season, our team experienced a lot of adversity and our leaders brought us together.”
Anyone who has spent time around the Tiger men’s soccer program knows that they are one of the most close-knit teams on campus. The level at which the program has excelled in the past three years does not happen without the kind of culture and atmosphere that currently exists within the program. Austen Burnikel understands this idea to the fullest.
“What drives me is that the leaders that have come before me have been able to build on the previous year’s accomplishments. So the only thing I’m concerned with this season is building on last year. When it comes to the top teams in any college sport, I believe the difference in talent is pretty marginable. It comes down to the intangibles, mentality and strong leadership.”
Every year Burnikel has been in the men’s soccer program, the team has accomplished more than the previous season. In 2013, when Burnikel was a freshman, the team won 11 matches and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In 2014, the Tigers won 12 matches and reached the Sweet 16, and last year in 2015, Clemson totaled 17 wins and made it all the way to the NCAA title match before falling to Stanford.
“Freshman year, we got eliminated in the first round, sophomore year, the Sweet 16, so you always hope you can build on your success and keep improving. We had big expectations for ourselves going into the 2015 season. We all committed to being in Clemson over the summer to train. When you train with a genuine belief and when everyone buys in, it’s not unreasonable to expect to be playing at the end of the season.”
Despite all the success Clemson men’s soccer has enjoyed during his career, he is nowhere near satisfied with where the program is right now. Last year, he was a part of a team that made an incredible run to the national championship match, only to lose in a contest in which they did not play its best.
“The one thing I remember from the national title match was afterwards being congratulated by our director of athletics, Dan Radakovich, and the board of trustees. While that was going on, all I could see was the other team on the podium jumping up and down with the trophy. That image will always stay with me.”
In 2016, the program’s goals are the same as they always have been. They want to build on last year but approach this season as the unique and unpredictable challenge that it is. The team’s goal is to win championships, whether that be a national title, an ACC title or both.
“One of our goals that’s pretty close to me is that we want to make history. The ACC championship is in Charleston this year, which will be the first major championship hosted in South Carolina in a long time. That is important to me.”
When the final buzzer sounds in this season, the senior captain wants to be remembered, and not just for the 2014 ACC championship, the 2015 national title game appearance or anything that the program accomplishes in 2016. He wants his legacy to be more than a piece of hardware or a banner hanging on the fences of Riggs Field.
“When I hang up my jersey, I want to have left it in a better place than where I found it. That’s the goal. I want to be known as a good player, but more importantly, someone who truly emulated Clemson men’s soccer and contributed to improving and building the program.”
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