BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU junior defender Trent Hofmeister chases after the ball vs. Washington College while SU senior defender Cam Wilson runs in the background. Sept. 12. Emma Reider photo
The typical road for a college athlete moves from freshman to senior, learning and rising through the ranks of the team as they move along the way at their school. For some, though, the road comes with twists and turns, potentially involving a change in location as the trip moves along.
That change in scenery is not always a bad thing, as evidenced by members of the Salisbury University men’s soccer team. As Sea Gulls now, three players and a recent former one share one thing in common: the shine of armor over their feathers.
SU senior defender Cameron Wilson, junior defender Trent Hofmeister, senior goalkeeper Trevor Brookhart and now-assistant coach Colby Fell all spent a section of their collegiate careers near Baltimore before dressing in the maroon and gold.
All four attended and played for the Community College of Baltimore County Essex Knights, a school within the National Junior College Athletic Association and the Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference.
“It just worked out,” Fell said. “A lot of my club teammates went there. It just made the right sense to stay there for two years, figure out what I wanted to do. Then, I just came home because I felt like it was the right thing to do to see family and some old friends as well.”
Originally a native of Berlin, Md., Fell played for the Knights during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, tallying 10 career goals and three assists in 39 career appearances. He made the move to the Baltimore area for high school at first.
After his move to SU two seasons ago, Fell became a key starter on the defensive side of the ball, recording one goal and two assists in 27 career starts and 32 overall appearances. He was a consistent force for SU head coach Alex Hargrove in his first two seasons as a collegiate head coach.
With his success in college, Fell was the first Sea Gull in a recent line of defensive-minded players to gain their first collegiate experiences as a Knight across the Chesapeake Bay. He even played a role in recruiting two future Sea Gulls.
Due to their recent time at CCBC Essex, all four of the players overlapped in some way with each other at the junior college. It was because of this that Fell became familiar with Wilson and Brookhart over the years. With Brookhart, his first performance was enough of an introduction for Fell.
“It started with our very first game together at Essex. He had 16 saves in one game. Ever since then, I told him, ‘Me and you, we’re gonna be buddies,’” Fell laughed.
Brookhart spent two seasons as a Knight in 2015 and 2016, posting a 1.09 career GAA and 81.2 save percentage over the course of 26 career starts. Now, in both last season and this season, the Eldersburg, Md., native is a familiar face leading the Sea Gulls in the goal with a 0.83 GAA and 82 save percentage across 28 career starts.
Fell’s other recruiting work came in the form of Wilson after the two built a close relationship together during the 2015 season at Essex, Wilson’s only one as a Knight. That connection brought a chance with Hargrove and the Sea Gulls two seasons later in the 2017 campaign.
“When he contacted me after the season, I already had been [at Salisbury] for a year,” Fell said. “I was really happy to try and get him to come out and get him some time. It was just another old friend back on the field, so last year was a lot of fun getting back to playing with him for one last ride.”
Wilson brought starting experience from his freshman season at Stevenson University and his time at Essex, posting one goal and six assists in 20 starts for the Knights.
Initially coming in as a defensive midfielder, the Baltimore, Md., native has worked his way back into more of a center back role in the maroon and gold this season. After seeing 20 appearances, including three starts, in 2017, Wilson already has three starts so far in 2018.
“I wasn’t in a position that I was used to because I’m usually in the back line,” Wilson said. “For this season, I’m playing a position that I’m more used to. Once I got my shot starting, I wanted to prove a point. From now on here, I just have to stand my ground.”
The new opportunities have come alongside a new face to the Sea Gull backline in 2018 as Hofmeister joined the group of former Knights. The Fallston, Md., native has started at center back in every SU match so far this season.
“I was planning on coming to [Salisbury] straight out of high school, but then Essex came to me, so I went there for two years,” Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister’s attraction to Salisbury remained two years later, dressing for the maroon and gold in 2018. He remains as the most recent Knight to join the Sea Gulls.
The four players span four seasons of Essex soccer under head coach Joe Fiedler. Those four campaigns were fruitful for the program, winning their NJCAA Region each season and making the NJCAA National Tournament two times. The team had a 61-24-2 over those recent seasons.
As these four Sea Gulls aided the Knights in their successful campaigns across the last four seasons, they were also gaining valuable experience on the field in collegiate soccer. The players agreed that their experiences at Essex prepared them for their time in NCAA Division III soccer.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that once you get out of the Maryland area and start playing teams from New York, Texas or Arizona, those are where some of the higher-quality teams come from, especially with a lot of international influence,” Fell said.
The former Sea Gull center back said that some of the toughest teams he ever remembers facing came in the NJCAA National Tournament. Some junior colleges had international talent recruited from Africa, South America or Europe.
“For me, it was an eye-opener, especially going into that tournament,” Fell said. “The quality of Maryland JUCO was still high and still competitive. Not every game was a big result, but it was a very good experience to catch up to that college level.”
Wilson saw the national contenders as a whole different level of play. His memory immediately returned to one of his first matches with Essex when the Knights faced Eastern Florida State College, which Wilson said was like a track team on the field and had at least 10 NCAA Division I talented athletes.
Hofmeister saw nuances in the play between the JUCO level and NCAA Division III play. The now-SU center back pointed out the physicality of the opponents while he was a Knight.
While the talent of the opposition did have a hand in preparing the players for their success today, their current head coach Hargrove sees great value in just the on-the-field experience that each player received during their first years in college.
“With defenders, the hardest thing to find is young defenders who have that experience of leading a back line,” Hargrove said. “Those are all guys who came in with a lot of starts and a lot of playing time and also playing in the national tournament.”
“[They] are able to step in and lead effectively right away [when they arrive at SU], where sometimes you bring in a first-year defender and it takes them that year to get comfortable vocally as well as knowing all of the little details and nuances of what it takes to be a successful defender.”
Knowing those nuances and having that experience helped to pave the way for all four Sea Gulls to have future success. With Fell in a different role, now coaching from the sidelines, the three other former Knights continue to impact the results on the field for the Sea Gulls.
Salisbury (6-1-1) sported a six-match winning streak after a season-opening loss to Hobart College before drawing with Arcadia on Saturday. The team is playing strongly on the defensive side of the ball with a 0.49 GAA and five clean sheets currently.
With conference play coming on Saturday, the Sea Gulls might soar in as a hot team to contend for a CAC title. While each of their stints at Essex may have not overlapped recently, all four former Knights are now part of a different team with one goal in mind: utilizing the experiences they drew in across the Chesapeake Bay.