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October 18, 2010

TECH'S DRIVING FORCE - After a slow start to his career, Clarke Bentley has become the man behind the wheel of Tech's soccer team in his senior season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Three seemingly short years ago, the season for the Virginia Tech men’s soccer program lasted longer than any season in school history, as the Hokies embarked on an exhilarating ride to the College Cup, soccer’s version of the Final Four.

While on that trip, Clarke Bentley was a mere passenger, just a freshman enjoying the spin.

These days, though, he’s got the keys to Tech’s program and he’s trying to drive the Hokies back to respectability.

Tech sat with a 3-6-1 record as of press time, but that mark included a 1-1-1 record in the ACC. Yet even that is a surprising improvement over the previous two seasons, as the Hokies field one of the youngest rosters in the ACC. Tech is still trying to recover after being humbled by the NCAA following some rules violations under former coach Oliver Weiss.

Sitting in the driver’s seat this season is Bentley, a slight young man from Georgia. As steady as the Hokies’ improvement has been, it comes as no less of a shock that Bentley is leading this year’s excursion.

“He was a young man whom we always saw talent in,” men’s soccer coach Mike Brizendine said. “But he was childish in his ways. The transformation has been unbelievable.”

Brizendine knows this firsthand. He played a large role in recruiting Bentley from the Atlanta suburbs to Virginia Tech four years ago, seeing a player who was good on the ball and who possessed good speed and sharp vision. More importantly, he felt Bentley really understood the game.

And he does. He’s been playing it since he was 4 years old. But his laid-back attitude prevented him from creating a huge impact at Tech from the start.

“I like to have my fair share of laughs, for sure,” Bentley said. “I think it [being a leader] was more of an attitude or persona that you adapt as an older guy. You accept that you have to be responsible and cognizant of all that’s going on. You look at all the pieces and you try to help the team in any way you can.

“Being the laid-back guy that I was, I wasn’t the best guy for that at the time. If you don’t buy into that attitude, then you’re not fit to lead.”

His first season was practically a waste. Bentley played in just three matches – none in ACC play. He scored a couple of goals in garbage time against Appalachian State. He then came down with a case of tonsillitis and later contracted mononucleosis, but the late-season match against Appalachian State came after the NCAA’s cutoff date for receiving a medical hardship waiver. So he truly wasted a year.

Clarke Bentley has provided desperately needed production and leadership to a young Tech squad this season.

That’s not to say he didn’t have a blast – everyone enjoys being a part of a winning team. But the fun came from being part of that great Tech team and not so much from his performance on the field.

“Achievement wise, I didn’t achieve much,” Bentley said. “But for the team, it was phenomenal. Being on the team and traveling and making those trips to NCAA Tournament games was outstanding. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Then came a disastrous sophomore season, at least for the program. Bentley himself made 11 starts and appeared in 19 matches, scoring three goals on the season. But the team failed to win an ACC match, and the following spring, Weiss resigned. Brizendine got the job a week after Weiss’ resignation.

“I like to accept things with optimism,” Bentley said. “When Briz got the job, some of the older guys called each other on the phone. It was like, ‘We didn’t win an ACC game last year, so change can be good.’ One thing that is a positive of Briz is his personality and his ability to level with the players.”

During the transition, the Hokies struggled, winning just two ACC matches in Brizendine’s first season. Bentley enjoyed a decent campaign last season as a junior – he finished with three goals and eight points, starting 14 matches and playing in 19.

But Brizendine wanted more. He expected more. But he was coming to the conclusion that Bentley wasn’t going to live up to his immense talents.

“With Clarke, it’s always been a question about his mindset,” Brizendine said. “It’s never been a question of talent. He’s always had that. He had the skills when he first showed up on campus. What I wanted to see was more of a commitment. I wanted to see him become more invested.”

Bentley went all in this past summer. Most of his classmates were gone – only a few players remain off that College Cup team – and Bentley found himself surrounded by freshmen and sophomores who needed some guidance during offseason and preseason workouts. He suddenly found himself fielding questions and providing examples on what to do.

He suddenly found himself in the role of a leader.

“I got to thinking ‘Why should I not be this guy? Why should I not help these freshmen adapt as quickly as they can?’” Bentley said. “At one point in the summer practices, we were two or three weeks in and I stopped practice and talked to them. I told them that this wasn’t club soccer anymore. The speed of play picks up. Everything is faster and we needed to be faster. Some of the new players were over-complicating things. It’s instrumental when you’re trying to adapt to the college game to know that everything is going to be faster.

“Over those four weeks, everything started to dawn on me that I should be accepting more responsibility.”

This season, he’s become what Brizendine expected. He has scored two goals, both coming at critical moments. His goal against Clemson helped the Hokies secure a tie, and then he scored against N.C. State in Tech’s 2-1 victory.

And he accepts the blame when Tech loses.

“We’re a young team and young guys are going to make mistakes,” Bentley said. “Someone needed to put their hand up and say, ‘Hey, I could have done this better or that better.’ If freshmen make mistakes, it’s okay. But for me and some of the older guys, we need to be a little harder on ourselves.

“That’s fine. I don’t mind that at all. You have to accept things that are negative about something that you’ve done in order to move on.”

“That tells me he’s invested,” Brizendine said. “It’s personal to him. When we win, he’s ecstatic. When we lose, he takes it personally.

“He’s showing leadership and making plays. He’s encouraging his teammates to get them to be better, and that makes us better as a team. His personal performance has just been impressive in all phases.”

Despite Bentley’s tremendous play, the Hokies have been a little up and down in 2010, but they couldn’t have been expected to make another drive to the College Cup. After all, they feature 13 freshmen on the roster and play in the toughest conference in the country.

For the Hokies, this season is more about a ride to respectability. For sure, it’s not been the easiest of jaunts.

At least in Bentley, though, they’ve got the right person behind the wheel.