Jeff Bruni Jr. and Owen Betz have been playing soccer together going back to when they were just 10 years old.
The select teammates won't be splitting up anytime soon as the Gulfport and St. Stanislaus standouts recently signed to play collegiately at Northern Kentucky University.
Bruni said it all started a few years back when one of NKU's assistant coaches saw him in a showcase in Alabama. Correspondence started soon after and really heated up over the past year.
Betz had been recruited by the likes of Clemson and Coastal Carolina, but Bruni saw an opportunity with the Norse that might be both beneficial for his friend and the Norse, which is a new member of the Horizon League. From there, Bruni essentially played matchmaker.
"Their senior keeper left, and they were looking for a keeper, so I advised the coach that we have a great keeper in the South, and they should come take a look at him," Bruni said Saturday. "He saw the potential in Owen and it just went from there."
Betz ended up signing with the Norse in part because of the unique opportunity of signing with a relatively new Division I program.
"We can help build it up. That's what I really like, too," Betz said. "The other schools I was being recruited by, they were already top 20 in the nation in Clemson and Coastal (Carolina). No one has really heard of Northern Kentucky, so that was pretty cool, too, to be able to be a part of something that's coming from the ground up."
He added the NKU coaching staff also played a large role in landing his signature.
"A lot of the other coaches were kind of iffy about the way they were going to do things. Northern Kentucky was up front and straightforward about everything," Betz said. "I really liked that about them."
Early playing time
Bruni hopes to compete for playing time right away at either striker or in the midfield.
This past season he was one of the more electric scorers in Mississippi, netting 25 goals.
The same goes for Betz, who after starring for the SSC football team as a reliable deep-threat receiver posted a 15-1 record with 10 shutouts and a 0.70 goals against average for the Class 4A champion Rockachaws.
"They want me to step in and start right away," Betz said of NKU. "I have to go in and prove myself and hopefully I'll earn the starting job."
Regardless of playing time, Bruni and Betz are excited that they'll be able to confide in one another while attending school nearly 12 hours away in Highland Heights, which is 7 miles southeast from downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
"It's great. Anybody going to college, you want to know somebody and make friends right there," Bruni said. "I feel like being with Owen and hopefully rooming with him, I can always have that one friend and branch out from there.
"It's always good to have that sense of home."
Before they report to NKU in July, Betz and Bruni will team up once more March 8-15. This time the two will be among the 20-plus best kids from the Southeast who were selected to play for the Olympic Development Program's Region 3 team in a series of exhibition games in Costa Rica.
"It's rare for kids from South Mississippi to play Division I soccer," Betz said. "We've been fortunate enough to go all over the world and play soccer to show that Mississippi is not the lowest grade soccer society in the country. It's cool. I want to be able to expand Mississippi's soccer horizons.
"Soccer is growing in the United States and I want to prove that we're capable of doing things nobody ever thought we were able to do."