Alberti on getting stronger and improving his mental approach to soccer after a year off

BLACKSBURG — Just two years ago, Robert Alberti had reached the point he didn't really want to look at a soccer ball anymore if he wasn't playing in a game.

Practices at Virginia Tech were a chore. Even pregame warmups his sophomore season were a half-effort, half-daydreaming experience. Distracted by far more pressing matters off the field, and burned out on the game, he no longer ranked soccer high on his list of priorities.

As Alberti puts it, the "fire" in his game has returned.

After taking a year off from the game to concentrate on academics, fitness, his possible future career and, most importantly, his mother's struggle with skin cancer, Alberti has returned in his senior season to lead Tech (3-3-4 overall, 1-1-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) to a surprising start.

"I did it for myself," said Alberti, a Kecoughtan High graduate who leads Tech in points with 10 and goals with four. "I took the time off, did what I needed to do, came back and I'm ready to go now.

"I was definitely burned out with soccer. I didn't have that same fire. I think that was probably the biggest reason for taking the year off. The time off was exactly what I needed, because I came back, and now I'm 110 percent committed."

When Tech hosts No. 2 Notre Dame (6-0-4, 3-0-3) at 7 p.m. Friday, it will do so with Alberti at center forward. It's been 3 1/2 weeks — a span of five games — since Tech has scored a goal in a game, but it has played its best soccer against top competition.

Alberti will play the way he's always played — aggressively, on the edge, unafraid of the threat of yellow cards — but he'll do so with just a little more control that he used to have prior to his time off.

Alberti, who has aspirations of playing pro after college, said it used to be nothing for him to mouth off during a game to an official if things didn't go his way. Now, he shows much more restraint, but the work rate that has always defined his game is still present.

"Athletically, he's a freak," said Mike Brizendine, who is in his fourth season as Tech's head coach after spending five seasons as a Hokies assistant coach. "He could honestly sit and not do anything for two or three months, then go out and run a 12-minute 2 miles.

"Keeping him in control, that's where I've seen a lot of growth. That's where I talk about maturity. Just being able to control himself, which to me is one of the hardest things to do — the mental aspect of it."

Though losing the desire to practice and put in work outside of games was a big reason for Alberti telling Brizendine in November 2011 he wanted to take a year off, outside elements he had no control over also led to his hiatus.

During his 2010 freshman year, his grandfather died, which hit Alberti hard. Then, in fall 2011, his mother, Shiela Gonzalez, was diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer. Hearing that news convinced Alberti the time was right to step away from soccer.

"It really freaked me out that this woman — I mean, who knows what could've happened?" said Alberti, who started 12 games and scored two goals as a sophomore.

"It gave me a bunch of anger. The way I dealt with that was I was always in the gym."

Alberti, a business major with a 3.4 grade-point average, spent his time off working out in the gym almost daily, running 45 minutes to an hour in the morning and doing sprints in the afternoons. He lost about 18 pounds to get to his current weight of 172.

He also took a summer internship with NVR Inc., a home-building and mortgage banking company that has since offered him a full-time job upon graduation. He was able to do the internship in Williamsburg, so he could stay in Hampton and be closer to his mom and family, which includes six siblings ages 9 through 26.

Since the skin-cancer diagnosis, Gonzalez has had an extensive surgery on her chest and neck. She goes for checkups every six months, and has been free and clear of the disease thus far.

"I was one of those sun bunnies when I was younger," said Gonzalez, who turned 46 on Thursday. "Unfortunately, as we get older, those things start to catch up on you. It did, but it's all pretty good now."

During her son's year away from the game, Gonzalez said she witnessed a transformation in him — a change for the better.