A look into this soccer star’s lifelong career and hopes for the future.
There were 73 seconds left in the match before Montclair State’s men’s soccer team extended its six-game undefeated streak to seven. However, before the final whistle could alleviate the tension that naturally builds during a 1-1 game, Anthony Passiatore, an Oneonta midfielder, scored the winning goal.
The bleachers at Pittser Field resounded with a communal groan. On the other side of the artificial turf, an injured Mike Olla, the team’s leading goal scorer at the time, could only sit and watch.
Olla, 21, of Bloomfield, suffered a hamstring injury in MSU’s 2-1 win against Hunter College on Sept. 9. Two days earlier, the athletic department had singled him out as the fall semester’s first Athlete of the Week, but instead of focusing on his individual triumphs, Olla promoted the success of the team.
“I feel like this year will be a really good year,” Olla said, remaining positive after the loss to Oneonta. “This is a special team and we haven’t had a feeling like this in a while.”
Olla emphasized the efforts of the team, but, wearing a gray t-shirt and red Nike shorts, the 6-foot-tall forward stood out from his teammates in white, who were shuffling off of the field.
On Sept. 15, Olla, who scored five goals in the opening five games, was again named Athlete of the Week.
“Mike Olla’s a good player,” head coach Todd Tumelty said. “He’s super athletic. He does a good job for us.”
Olla, who has played soccer on two continents, helped his high school to a national championship and the Red Hawks to last year’s New Jersey Athletics Conference championship. Olla turned 21 on Sept. 23, but has been playing soccer since he learned how to walk.
“My dad put a ball at my feet and I’ve just been playing ever since,” Olla said in a low voice that masked his fading English accent.
Born in east London to Nigerian parents, Olla played in the Leyton Orient F.C. youth academy before moving to Bloomfield in 2007.
Before becoming a Red Hawk, Olla was a St. Benedict’s Gray Bee. In his final season at St. Benedict’s Prep, Olla made 16 goals and four assists. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and helped St. Benedict’s collect its eighth national championship.
That season, Olla also scored his most memorable goal, which he netted against Pennington School from 35 yards out.
“I just ripped it. It was all power,” Olla said, scratching his beard as he recollected his memory of the goal.
Originally, Olla was to attend Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., but he didn’t really want to play Division I soccer.
“I liked Montclair,” Olla said, explaining how he ended up at a Division III school. “When I came here, I liked the coach, the staff and the players.”
Again turning attention to his teammates, Olla said, “They just made me feel at home.”
The men’s soccer team prides itself on its “family feel.” After every home game, players can be seen sitting around the field, eating a homemade dinner provided by several parents of the athletes.
“This is a longstanding tradition,” said Sylvia Gonzalez, mother of goalkeeper Michael Gonzalez, as two women on her left ladled pasta pepperoni onto paper plates and distributed them to player after player.
Soccer has also influenced Olla’s family at home. His father played as a young man and his brother Phillip, a freshman at New Jersey City University, plays soccer for the Gothic Knights. Montclair State defeated the Gothic Knights 4-0 on Sept. 23.
Despite playing for competing schools, Olla said that soccer has brought them closer together. “It’s something we’ll always have in common.”
After the Oneonta game, teammate Kazari Trought, walked over and threw an arm around Olla’s shoulders. “He’s the star player on the team,” Trought said as both players laughed.
Olla tried to deny the claim and explain the praise by saying, “this is actually my best friend.”
Still, Olla knows what it means to be a top goal scorer on the team; “It’s very important because you do what everybody wants to see,” said Olla. “Apart from the attention, you feel like you did something for your team.”
Olla, who prays before every match, hopes to play professional soccer at a lower-league team in England after graduating, if that’s “God’s plan” for him.
“I don’t want to not try and say, ‘what if.’ I want to try and see what happens,” Olla said.
After missing four games, Olla hopes to return to the lineup in the home game against Stockton University on Saturday.
“If he continues to work hard, then he’ll have a real successful season here,” Tumelty said.
Olla just wants fans to come out and support the team and “to see the greatness that will happen this season.”