The Rise Of The Brock Badgers And Coach Aleks Balta
Flashback: It had only been a week since the move-in day for the Class of ’27 at Brock University. The sun was shining and it was a breezy 21 degrees in early September as 400 students, fans, family members, and friends of the Brock Badgers descended on the university’s Alumni Field to cheer on the men’s soccer team as they opened their 2023 season against the McMaster Marauders.
The ‘Battle of the Niagara Peninsula’ (I don’t know if there truly is a derby between McMaster and Brock, but there should be) would end in a 1-0 victory for the home side with OUA veteran Marc Iantomasi netting the ’75 winner.
And while only two years earlier, this sort of win was a possibility for the Brock program, it was one that always seemed just out of reach. In fact, during the 2021 OUA men’s soccer season, the Brock Badgers would only record 2 wins and 1 draw for a total of 7 points throughout their campaign, leaving them in the bottom three of the OUA-West conference.
In early 2022 the Badger’s announced a change in direction for their men’s soccer bench. With Erik Van Wissen taking the head coaching torch from former Canadian international Lucio Ianiero in 2021, the Badger’s looked outwards for someone who had experience with players at the collegiate/semi-pro level but also who had a connection to the city and campus.
Enter Aleks Balta.
Making History in Mississauga
Aleks Balta has spent his entire life surrounded by the beautiful game. A former U-17 Team Ontario player before injury took him out of contention for further professional progression, he channeled his passion for footy and turned to coaching to remain involved.
Balta would find his first major gaffer gig with North Mississauga SC during the 2019 League1 Ontario season. Poached from Hamilton’s youth soccer scene for his ability to connect with players, it was with that team where he found success as in his first – and only – season with the club, he led them to their first-ever playoff appearance.
With North Mississauga, Balta learned how to approach coaching this level of soccer and how to best channel the players’ strengths.
“It took some buying in from the players… we had to [reteach] the fundamentals and the roles they had to do in our half,” reflected Balta himself. He added that this buy-in would come as the roster rediscovered their places on the pitch within Balta’s ‘defense-first’ style of play and, aptly, as the results started rolling in.
North Mississauga would see a return on their investment as the side went from a 3W-9L-4D record during the 2018 L1O season to an 8W-5L-2D record in 2019, enough to capture sixth place and end the season on a three-game winning streak.
With his tenure at with the Panthers being cut short due to the COVID pandemic, Balta would soon be able to turn his sights towards his Alma Matter with an offer from the Badgers coming his way in early 2022.
Reliving The College Days
As a new coach, his time at North Mississauga aided Balta in finding his grove and refining his approach to developing struggling squads, something which the Badger’s men’s side was doing in 2022.
Said Balta, “I looked at their stats from the year before and I looked at video’s [of Brock games] during the interview process and there was a lot of talent here. Unfortunately, a lot of that talent graduated when I came in.”
Despite these hurdles, Balta’s ambitions for year one was to make the playoffs and this began with recruiting ‘key guys’ to keep the program competitive.
But ultimately, it would be a shift in the dressing room culture which would revamp the Badgers soccer program. Bringing his refined precision and attention to detail with him from North Mississauga, Balta focused on truly putting the players to work and treating them as competitive, nye-professional, athletes.
This started with a renewed training regiment. Balta described a new programme of training four times a week in the off-season which included a minimum of 75 minutes every Tuesday dedicated to studying game footage.
“The players were shocked by what I brought to their training. They weren’t used to the demands that I required from them and the intense environment day in and day out.”
Balta noted that as the intensity of their training rose, he was able to interject his style of ‘defense-fist’ football by refocusing the teams priorities through their drills.
Unfortunately, Balta was unable to fully implement his game plan prior to the kickoff of the 2022 season. Having joined in May, he missed the entirety of the winter off-season with his new roster, a critical piece to team building and bonding as the winter generally serves as a developmental period for university roster’s through indoor play, strength and conditions training, and exhibition games.
Despite this and the learning curve for the players and their new coach, once the boys – both new and old – began to get used to their new gaffer and the new expectations of them, Balta once again had players en masse buying into his style and goals.
“Once the players get into it, they start to embrace it as its more enjoyable… it makes the game more fun.”
And it was clear that these boys had rediscovered their joy for the game. Below is a clip from the the Brock Badgers home opener for the 2022, Aleks Balta’s first match at Alumni Field. A feed to striker Mike Solomon would fly over the outstretched hand of the Windsor Lancers’ keeper, marking the Badgers first home goal of the season and securing their third win in a row.
The ‘Balta Project’ would pay off in the end come 2022, no matter how short of a pre-season the new coach would have with his side. Having played previous years encumbered by defensive habits which stifled the side’s ability to win matches, Balta’s game brought with it a stronger back line and more wins. The Badgers went from a 2W-7L-1D record in 2021 to a 4W-3L-5D in 2022 while also starting the season with a seven-game undefeated streak.
Balta’s Badgers vs The World
2023 would prove to be even more successful for Brock as Balta would have an even longer off-season to help mould this squad into its full potential.
After the 2022 fall semester exam period and the holiday break, the Badgers got right to work upon the players’ return to campus with training going to that four sessions a week.
“The problem with training during the fall season is that you can’t go too hard as you’re always preparing for your next match. In the winter, we can work on a theme a week or two and the players are actually able to grow.” He added that many of the lessons learned from the previous fall were expanded on during the winter to refine and fix the issues found.
Once again, Balta found that the players were falling for this new regiment as results in off-season exhibitions and in practice were showing themselves. Thus, once the 2023 preseason came about, the standards and expectations of the side were set and the roster knew what needed to be done to continue achieving these favourable results.
Part of the new pre-season programme were team building exercises. In conversation, Balta repeatedly mentioned how his role as coach goes far beyond the product on the pitch and that he sees himself as a mentor for the players to become better people.
“I try to give the players life messages and comparable moments to life. The more I’m around a team the more they trust the emotion and intensity I provide and that there is a thought process with everything I put to them.”
This bonding was capped off in the summer with a group camping trip to Bronte Creek Provincial Park, organized by the team, to build those connections and levels of trust between the players.
Come the 2023 season, everything taught by Balta came to fruition and the Badgers were pitted against one of the strongest slates of teams the OUA has seen featuring league vets, Canadian Premier League draft picks, and CPL development players alike.
Averaging nearly two goals per game, the Badgers would out-perform all expectations by winning their home opener, going on an eight-game undefeated stint, and only losing three games throughout the entire season. Their performance placed them second, ahead of the neck-and-neck Guelph and McMaster, and through to the OUA quarter-finals with a bye.
And this was all part of the plan for Balta. In his eyes, his focus on the team’s defensive play in his first year, 2022, allowed them to keep balls out of their net and granted them the space to grow offensively and build towards a stronger attack. This provided results as the his teachings translated into scoring 9 goals in 2022 to 22 goals for in 2023. “Once the defensive habits are in place, then you can focus more on your attack”, says the gaffer.
Facing McMaster in the OUA quarter’s, the Badgers swiftly subdued their Hamilton opponents with a 3-1 victory as Luca Danesi, OUA First Team All-Star Marc Iantomasi, and Michael Solomon sealed the deal for the St. Catherine’s finest.
Sadly for Balta and his side, their OUA run would end in the semi-finals in controversial fashion as they were defeated on penalties by the Carleton Ravens. Despite an early goal by Connor Carroll off of a feed from Danesi, a 56-minute foul called on the Badgers in their own penalty area would allow Luca Piccioli to tie it and send it to PK’s where the top seed in the OUA-East Ravens would bring it home.
2024 and Beyond
Aleks Balta’s vision remains unphased despite what happened at Taag Park in this year’s OUA playoffs. With the off-season now upon us, Balta has already begun working with the rest of his coaching staff to build a stronger team for next season.
Due to the realities of varsity sports, Balta has already had to say goodbye to several of his players who will be graduating or aging out this year, including the likes of Luca Ragagnin and the aforementioned Iantomasi. But others have sprung up in their place to fill the leadership.
“Conrad [Czarnecki], although he’s in his first year, he’s 22 and has seen a lot of success… being an OUA All-Star and he’s a leader.” Balta also mentioned the likes of Thiago Pereira and Lucas Medeiros, who he’s pegged to build the midfield’s rapport on and off the pitch.
Balta repeatedly mentioned the bittersweet aspect of varsity sports of where you are sad to lose your older players but that the revolving door of talent forces a team to evolve and adapt.
“Other players have to step up… [every year] you get players with different skillsets and you change your approach.”
But with this new squad, Balta does see the potential for a rowdy – and possibly golden – 2024 season. “It will be a tough task to finish first or second seeing the tough competition in our division but we want to put ourselves in a position to make a deep run in the playoffs and qualify for Nationals.”
Until then, Aleks Balta will continue his work of building that new roster in preparation for next season. As for other coaching ambitions, he reaffirmed that his devotion and passion remains with the boys and pitch at Brock University until a new position arises whose prospects make sense to his development.
“I’m not going to do it just to do it,” said Balta, “It has to make sense for my life and my career.”
For now, his eyes remain solely on OUA and U SPORTS glory.