Dylan Thompson – Playing Division 3 College Soccer

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Dylan Thompson played soccer from age 6, turning competitive at 11 he played on the second team in a relatively small suburban club. He attended a strong academic charter school and worked his way on to the varsity team in his freshman year. The school competed at the 3A level (where 5A is the largest), playing against other charter, private and religious schools. In his time there, the school made it as far as the semifinals of the state championships and he made the All-Conference and All-State teams in his senior year. At the same time he continued to play high level club soccer in the spring season, attending college showcase events around Region 4 and in Texas.

Following graduation, Dylan attended Juniata College – a small Division 3 liberal arts school in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He currently plays varsity there, starting in all of their games for the past two seasons.  

Do you remember at what age soccer became serious for you? What was the trigger?

I would say freshman year of high school, so when I was 14-15, playing for a school and having friends come and cheer you on, having fans besides your parents. It was exciting to be playing for a school – you felt like a representative – like you were playing for everybody, or at least, that’s how I felt.

When did you start thinking about playing in college?

Not until my senior year. I didn’t think I was good enough to play so I didn’t do any of the athlete side of recruiting – doing a resume, making calls or reaching out to colleges. In the fall of my senior year I realized it was something that I wanted to keep doing. With this school I then put on my resume that I was All-State and the coach contacted me about playing. They gave me good financial aid and that made it easy.

Did you get any support from your club or high school?

Definitely at the club level, although they were initially surprised that I wasn’t trying to play in college. They assumed that I was I think. Once they found out that I wasn’t they helped me in signing up for Clearinghouse. High school was much more about getting in to college than playing – more on the academic side.

What was the biggest factor in deciding which school was your first choice?

I did an overnight with the team and had such a good time seeing what it was like to be a college athlete. I saw what it was like to do a whole game day and it was really appealing to me. The whole idea of being a student athlete – combining athletics and academics. The school had a not-so-great program. Some of the others had established track record of getting to the NCAA Championship every year and I really liked the idea of coming to a school where I wouldn’t be judged as a freshman and I could get playing time, and I could be a part of building a program. Before I got there they hadn’t won many games, but we’ve gone from losing a lot more than winning, to going to the conference championship for the first time.

So you chose your school more on soccer than academics then? Were you always looking on the East Coast?

Kind of. I had pretty even financial aid packages with a couple of other schools, so I didn’t think I could make a wrong choice with where I went, but the deciding choice was the soccer. It wasn’t just about looking east. Pennsylvania has several small liberal arts schools, like my high school was, so my counselor recommended looking there to find something like that. Division 3 soccer is very big here so I found a lot of schools with teams that fit the profile I was looking for. I met with all of the coaches and went from there.

Tuition and board at your college cost just under $50,000 per year. The average freshman student receives $29,000 in financial aid. How much did you get and how did you get it?

I think I pay around $16,000 per year, which is cheaper than some in-state universities. That was important because I have a younger brother and sister who are both smarter than me and will be going to college somewhere. If we don’t all have to take out big student loans it was a big deal. None of the aid comes from soccer because of the Division 3 rules.

How did you contact the coach? Did they watch you play anywhere?

I told him that I was coming to visit the school because I was going to Pennsylvania to visit a bunch of them. I said I had an interest in playing college soccer and that I would like to meet with him. They didn’t really recruit in my area so it made sense for me to try to meet him while I was out there. I had a twenty minute meeting and then he asked me to come for an overnight so he could see my play with the team. Originally it was an email that I sent to him but I didn’t send any videos – it was all done through the awards and titles that I had from my soccer career that far. He said I had to have been relatively decent getting All-State, even though it was a different state that he didn’t really know much about.

What was your experience of showcase tournaments? ID Camps?

It was overwhelming. I felt like everybody was playing on edge and that I wouldn’t even get a look from college coaches. I felt like everyone else was more prepared and had sent out thousands and thousands of emails and I hadn’t. I didn’t take many risks at the time, which I regret now. Some of the players I was with and against are now on MLS teams, and I didn’t think at the time that they were that much better than I was. I think being on a second team from a younger age I just never thought I would be good enough to play at the top level so I didn’t try as hard as I could to get there.

How important was high school soccer to your development?

Much less about technical skills and more about being a leader. I didn’t have the best high school team so was one of the better players. I was a captain my junior and senior years so had to try be a motivator. I feel like I learned all of my technical things through club soccer, playing against better teams, but the intangibles like trying to play as hard as you can because you have to, playing above your ability level, came from high school. The games in 3A (small/middle size high school) was strange because there would be 2-3 really good players on each team and then a bunch of role players. You had to be as good as their best players and try to motivate your fringe players to be as good as their fringe players. It was a lot of 1v1 battles all over the field rather than a complete team. You had to play like you couldn’t do anything wrong. I had to have the confidence that I was better than the other players out there so I could be an example to the rest of the team. That’s how I felt anyway.

It must have been interesting setting up tactically to find and deal with star players on teams like that?

Yes. There was one kid we played against who was 6’8” so he was pretty easy to find! He plays for Notre Dame now. He played on a Development Academy team for club.

What was the beginning of college soccer like? How friendly and organized were they?

The first day was pretty terrifying. We did a gauntlet one mile run with fitness, so the first experience was just running. Being a junior now it is so funny because all of the freshmen come in such better shape than the rest of us do because they are so nervous about being in bad shape! I started playing like I had nothing to lose and I didn’t think I would be able to start at all. Once we got into the games I saw that technically the level was fine – they were just bigger, stronger and faster. I realized that if I worked harder I could make the team. We had a meet and greet the night after the first day of training, then we did 3v3 games, pairing up with your class on an off day. We would have two-a-day training for the pre-season, then on our off days we would play games and little tournaments, which was a playing way to get to know people.

Talk us through your pre-season. What goals were set?

Fitness and technical work in the morning, then tactical and playing in the afternoons. We make the freshman pick up everything after practice, so not really like hazing horror stories, but having them take the laundry and things like that, which has been consistent. So we have 90 minutes in the morning then 120 in the afternoon in the pre-season.

What about the regular season?

Light permitting we do 1:45 sessions at the start of the season to get fitness more, then as the season goes on and it gets darker we reduce to 1:15 maximum. We train from 5:30-7:15 then earlier as the light changes. There are protected hours at the school between 4pm-7pm which are preserved for athletes, during which teachers can’t assign meetings.

How much of your college experience was taken up with soccer? Do you feel like you missed anything?

Definitely not. I can’t imagine going to school without playing. My best memories that will stick with me after college are the ones through soccer. Winning the conference semi-finals against a team who smashed us in the regular season is one of the best memories I have here. The friendships I have through soccer too. I live with four other soccer players and I’ll live with four more next year too. There are no fraternities here so the teams form their own bonds here. We don’t have cliques or exclusive friend groups – everyone is friends with everyone here. It is an attitude that perpetuates through the school, which is what I was looking for. I thought it would be more like high school where only the upper classmen talk to each other, but from day one everyone is equal. The captains take charge of the drills but as a freshman you can certainly contribute.

How did it affect your academic performance? Did you have enough time and support?

I think it is easier in the fall when you have soccer than it is in the spring without it, because you have to structure yourself more with schedules and do work on busses. But I like that it forces you to do work compared to the spring where you have so much time and I feel like I don’t get anything done because I procrastinate.

What does a regular week look like for you in terms of training and games?

Twice a week we have games – usually Tuesday or Wednesday and then Saturday. Sometimes we will have Saturday/Sunday games but that’s only because the schools are right next to each other and often not very good so we are just trying to get games in. We have about 19 games each season. Going by bus it feels like everything here is three hours away so it is better to do the two at once rather than drive twice. This weekend we have to go to Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island, New York, which is the furthest we go. We drive four hours on Friday night then another hour and a half on Saturday morning. We stay overnight for that one obviously. If it is easier and makes sense we will stay overnight, but it is only on weekends and only if it is more than four hours away.

Did your head coach do much of the day to day training? How much contact did you have with him?

He runs everything and the assistants help him. He designs all the drills and they will take players to the side but he is running the main sessions. We have a goalkeeper coach too who works with the goalkeepers. Our head coach was a striker in college so he will work with the strikers sometimes as the assistants work with the defenders, but mostly it is him running everything.

How healthy were you in terms of eating, drinking and sleeping?

It’s different. Most people go out on Friday and Saturday but that isn’t an option for us. Nobody drinks the day or two before the game and especially in season you have a much different attitude. You’re an athlete before you’re a college student. They have speakers who will come in at the start of the year to talk about what to eat and drink. They give us bag lunches with peanut butter and jelly rather than the bad meats. They do their best but they don’t have the finances to be like some of the bigger schools.

Looking back at the whole experience, are you glad you went through it? Would you do it again?

Definitely not. One of our goalkeepers who is a sophomore now and has had eight concussions and can’t play anymore, and graduating students tell us that as soon as it is over you will wish that you could play again and that you go back through every game in your head. So now that I am an upperclassman I am trying to appreciate how rare it is and enjoy all of the games that I have left. I’m very lucky to be doing this.

Have you continued with soccer in any way since?

I always thought it would be fun to coach but my plan is to go to law school when I graduate. I will definitely play in adult leagues where I can for as long as I can. I won’t try out for a combine or anything like that.

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