By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
The conversation was not complicated.
After Benji Tembo’s freshman season at The Master’s University, coach Jim Rickard sat down the midfielder and delivered a succinct message, but one with special consequence for Mustang soccer.
“He told me that he saw me as a goal scorer and someone who could impact the team more than I did the first season,” Tembo said this week, recalling a 2015 campaign when he scored only two goals in 18 games. “So that motivated me. I felt he believed in me that I could do more. I just had to believe in myself.”
The talk helped Tembo release the mound of pressure he’d dug himself under and to instead play his game: relaxed and poised.
The results speak for themselves, Tembo going on to score 37 goals over the next three seasons, earning back-to-back Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year awards as a junior and senior, and third team NAIA All-American honors in 2017.
Tuesday, the senior was tabbed a second-team NAIA All-American, making him the first Mustang since at least 1995 to be a third-teamer or better in consecutive seasons.
Tembo is TMU’s first second-team pick since 2009, when Master’s reached the national final and Jake Marchesani was second team and Kevin Lawson was first.
“Benji was really the catalyst for us to do well the last two years because of his consistency,” said Rickard, whose team finished one point short of a GSAC regular season title in 2018 and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament. “Even if he wasn’t scoring goals, he was holding the ball for us, getting the ball for us, making great passes, chasing people down.”
Tembo’s 39 career goals are 10th most all-time at Master’s, tied with fellow Malawi native Humphrey Mahowa. Tembo’s 100 points are fourth most in the 28 years Rickard has coached the club.
“It’s hard to find players who can face defenders with the ball at their feet and not be under pressure because they’re not worried,” Rickard said.
That couldn’t necessarily be said of Tembo during his freshman season in 2015, when he played with the weight of the world on his shoulders and too often deferred to others.
“Coming here, I had a chance that one out of maybe a million get, to come here and play and go to school,” Tembo said. “I had this pressure that I had to rise to the expectations. I had to show up and show the guys that I can do this. I didn’t enjoy playing a lot of my first season because of that.”
Rickard remembers the game-changing, post-season conversation.
“I was just saying what I needed him to do and what he could do,” Rickard said. “I felt he was a very good player and that he needed to score some goals, not just assists. He had a lot of good chances his freshman year. Assists are great, but I said, ‘You have the ability to score goals.'”
From then on, Tembo rarely stopped.
He scored 10 goals as a sophomore, 17 as a junior and 10 again as a senior during a season in which he focused on doing “the dirty work,” as teammate Luis Garcia Sosa called it.
“Stuff that people don’t really get credited for,” Garcia Sosa said of Tembo. “Starting the play, dropping deep to get the ball, coming back on defense after he just made a 50-yard run.”
And, really, what a run it’s been.