In 2011, Vinny Bell earned his second consecutive UAA Men's Soccer Most Valuable Player honor in leading Case Western Reserve University to the Association title. On top of that, he also garnered UAA Presidents Scholar-Athlete accolades.
Fast forward to this past summer and Bell continued to shine on and off the pitch. While working full-time at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), he led the city's professional soccer club, AFC Cleveland, to the championship of the National Premier Soccer League, a league in the fourth division of the American soccer pyramid. The "Man of the Match" netted two game-tying goals in the team's 4-2 victory in the title game.
His performance in that championship game certainly came as no surprise to those who saw him play at CWRU. "Whenever we needed something, he was the guy who made it happen," said Dan Palmer, current Head Women's Soccer Coach at Oberlin College who was at the helm of the CWRU men's program for nine seasons through the 2012 campaign. "There were a number of times in his career that he made it happen when we needed it most."
Bell scores his second goal in NPSL final. He ended up on the ground as the ball found the back of the net.
Two goals Palmer remembers the most occurred in back-to-back home matches against UAA opponents. Bell scored both goals in a 2-0 Spartan victory over Brandeis University on Oct. 9, 2011, including one that was very similar to one of his goals in the NPSL final. "He got the ball on left edge of box, cut inside, beat two defenders, and put the ball in the net in a similar location as his first goal (in the NPSL final). The speed that it happened was incredible. It was so fast."
Five days later, Bell scored twice more in the Spartans' wild 6-5 come-from-behind win over Emory University. The Spartans trailed 4-2 early in the second half and were still behind 5-3 when Kostis Theoharides scored in the 79th minute. Then Bell came up big when his team needed him most, scoring on a header off a free kick from 45 yards out with six seconds left in regulation.
Bell finished his senior year with a program-record 20 goals on just 67 shots on goal, which "is just ridiculous," Palmer said with a laugh. "He just got better year after year. The biggest improvement for a player is usually sophomore year, but his improvement was noticeable every year."
Bell scored a program-record 20 goals in his senior season.
"He just kept getting better every year and grew exponentially as an athlete and academically," said Dave Diles, current Athletic Director at Virgina Military Institute, who served as the CWRU Director of Athletics from 2005-13. "He grew in confidence as his abilities and skills grew and developed."
Palmer remembers seeing Bell play the summer before his recruit's senior year in high school. "He was 5-9 or 5-10 and 150 pounds. I didn’t know he was going to be 6-1, 170. The very first time he trained with us, I was a little worried. He seemed to be struggling in the fitness test, but he kept on. Then we had an intrasquad scrimmage that night and it put away any concerns I may have had. Among other things, I realized how deceptively fast he is."
Bell started playing soccer when he was three. "Not playing in college never really crossed my mind because it has been such a major part of my life," he said. "I couldn't wait to start playing at that level."
He also knew he wanted to stay local. "A big reason for staying close was because I love Cleveland," he commented. "It is a unique city with tons of character and all my friends and family are here. However, the main reason was academics. I knew Case was a great school and I feel you can always get further in life investing in intellectual abilities over physical ones."
The first two seasons, Bell was asked to play numerous positions because it was best for the team, whixch meant he wasn't playing his strongest position. "At the end of his sophomore season, I talked to him and said 'you can be the best player on our team and that could be good enough or you could be the best player on the field every game,'" Palmer recalled. "We had a similar conversation on the academic side. He really just dug in."
Bell had always been a good student, but took his academics to a new level in his final two years, raising his cumulative grade point average from 3.3 to over 3.5, earning two UAA All-Academic honors in addition to making the Presidents' team as a senior. The honor is the highest in the UAA as it recognizes first team All-Association student-athletes who also achieve a 3.5 cumulative GPA or higher.
"The balance between athletics and academics is a struggle that all student athletes experience, but it is good preparation for life after college," Bell stated. "What I found helped me was prioritizing and committing 100% of my energy and focus to whatever was on my plate at the time. Whether I was studying, scrimmaging or playing, I was all in."
Things were also going well for Bell off the field. "I was given the opportunity to intern at PwC with the help of one of my professors. He put in a good word for me with a PwC recruiter and I got an email within a week to meet him and discuss an internship," he recalled. "I will always be appreciative and admire how much Case professors care about their students and want them to succeed as that is something rankings cannot always account for. Looking back on my internship I am grateful I got that experience so early because it really puts your classroom learning into perspective and gives you insights you can only get from a firm like PwC. It's was pretty cool to be a 19-year-old kid and get to sit in on meetings with CEOs and CFOs. Not to mention all the relationships I was able to build with smart and kind people that I still talk to today."
He played center forward his junior season, still not his ideal position, but he did lead the team with nine goals. Finally in his senior season he was an attacking midfielder. "We had better complimentary players that season," Palmer said. "His being an attacking mid paid dividends for everybody."
It was in Bell's junior and senior seasons that he was honored as the UAA Most Valuable Player. "Our UAA games were always the most difficult and the conference is filled with great players, so I was definitely honored to be recognized as the MVP twice," he remarked. "There was another UAA MVP on AFC Cleveland this year, Chris Cvecko, and I think us winning the league title goes to show how competitive the UAA is."
"His ability in soccer was noteworthy, one of the best we had technically with raw physical skills," Diles added. "His technical proficiencies continued to improve each season. He is pretty special."
In addition to enjoying his playing days, Bell also valued the overall UAA experience. "A great benefit of being a part of the UAA is the travel. Every game is played in one of America's coolest cities and the road trips with your teammates make for great memories," he stated. "Of course my fondest collegiate soccer memory was winning a UAA championship. Nothing tops a team accomplishment like that. It makes the exhaustion, hard work, and losses worth it and the celebration unforgettable."
It was not only his ability on the field, but also the way he carried himself that impressed others. "He is not arrogant," Palmer remarked. "It does not describe him in any way. He is a strong, confident, capable young man. He has never had an attitude, which I really admire about him. His way of looking at things was, 'This is the challenge and I think I can handle it.'"
"He never drew attention to himself except for his ability and sportsmanship," Diles stated. "By the time he was a senior, everyone knew he was the best player on the field, but he never acted like he was."
In his last semester at CWRU in Fall 2012, Bell took on a new challenge and played football for the Spartans. "It was extremely fun and extremely challenging. It was something I always wanted to try since I was a kid but I definitely underestimated how different it was from soccer," he said. "It was tough to get used to the rules and movements at first, but my teammates and coaches were very supportive and made it a great experience. I was just happy I could make their time invested in helping me worth it and help contribute to some wins once I got the hang of it."
Bell earned first team All-Association honors in his only season of football.
In typical Bell fashion, he continued to get better as the year went on and concluded his brief football career with seven receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown in the Spartans' 36-24 season-ending victory over Carnegie Mellon University that earned him UAA Football Offensive Player of the Year honors. He ended up garnering first team All-Association recognition.
"He had never played before and didn't now what he was dong," said Case Western Reserve University head football coach Greg Debelijak. "What really stood out to me was how willing he was to learn. He was arguably the best soccer player in program history and he volunteered to play JV football to learn the game better. He went from not knowing the game to being an all-conference receiver."
Thanks to his internship, Bell began working at PwC, where he works with clients to make sure the financial and accounting side of the company is operating effectively and ensure that their financial information is stated fairly. "In broad terms, we are a kind of watchdog for the capital markets and make sure the information being provided to the public about companies is accurate," he stated. "Personally, I have about five clients that I work on throughout the year as a part of a team. I have found that the more I learn and experience here the more my future goals change. I love what I do at PwC, so hopefully in the future I am still working with some of the world's best companies and non-profits."
The opportunity to play for AFC Cleveland was a welcome one for Bell. "I knew I didn't want to move or turn down my PwC offer for soccer, so I thought my playing career was pretty much over after senior year," he commented. "When AFC reached out to me about starting up a team in Cleveland that year it seemed like perfect timing and I couldn't pass it up. It can get tough to balance practice, work, and away game travel but PwC and AFC have always been accommodating and you do what you have to do to make sure you handle your responsibilities. Whether that's taking calls in the locker room or working on the plane, you get it done however you can. It is a big commitment, but I love playing for my coaches, teammates, club owner, and if nothing else, its great cardio."
Playing again at a high level was another challenge Bell embraced. "I was mostly just excited to get started," he recalled. "I knew soccer culture was completely different at this level and that I'd be playing against players with more diverse backgrounds from future/former MLS, Foreign National team players, Division 1 athletes, etc., so I was anxious to see what it would be like."Bell may not have been very vocal, but he still set the tone for the team. "He is a very quiet leader. He didn't say much, but when he did, people listened," Palmer remarked. "He took things on his shoulder when it needed to be done. When he lifted that championship trophy (after the NPSL final), for one moment, you could see the great emotion that he plays with, but doesn't usually show. He is very competitive."