Nothing shocked Waterloo High School graduate Ben Huels about his first exposure to Division I soccer.
Huels, the Belleville News-Democrat’s Player of the Year in 2016, was prepared for the competition he would face with the Saint Louis University Billikens.
“It’s definitely a different level,” said Huels, a forward who signed with the Billikens in February after racking up 30 goals and 12 assists as a senior at Waterloo. “When I was coming in, I was just trying to make the travel roster – the top 18 (players). I achieved that goal and got a lot of playing time. I started about half the games.
“The pace of the game (was faster) and the players were taller and stronger. It was a big step going from playing against mature boys to grown men.”
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Huels played in 15 of the Billikens’ 17 games and made seven starts. SLU finished 7-9-1 after falling 1-0 to Massachusetts on Sunday in the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament. Huels logged one assist, which came in a 3-0 win over Duquesne on Oct. 4.
Billikens coach Mike McGinty is bullish on Huels and his future at SLU.
“We’re happy with him,” McGinty said. “College soccer is a big jump, but he’s certainly gotten a lot of minutes, a lot of opportunity, a lot of good learning out of his first year.
“When we recruited him, we found a kid we thought had upside. We certainly didn’t think he was the finished product and that he had done all the learning he was going to do. We’re really excited to see what he looks like his sophomore, junior, senior year, because he certainly has the attitude and the skill set.”
Even though Huels hasn’t scored his first college goal, McGinty envisions plenty will be coming. Huels has a scorer’s mentality and a powerful leg to match.
“That’s what we recruited him to do,” McGinty said. “If that is in the future, I would be very excited for Ben. He’s a good shooter. When he’s in and around the penalty area, he’s pretty clinical. It does’t always translate that you’re a good goal-scorer at one level and it (carries over) automatically to the next level. But that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Huels finished with 61 goals and 21 assists in just two seasons at Waterloo. He had eight games with at least two goals as a senior, including a four-goal outburst. As a junior, Huels had nine games with at least two goals, including three hat tricks, as he helped the Bulldogs win the Class 2A state championship.
Huels, who plans to major in business (marketing or finance) or civil engineering, still envisions himself being a scorer as his college career evolves.
“I’ve been playing forward, so I see myself as a goal-scorer,” Huels said. “But I feel like I can play an attacking (midfielder) role or even a wide guy. Just whatever Coach wants for me is what I’ll do. It was tough (to score). We were playing against the best teams in the nation – Syracuse, Michigan State, Stanford. It was a great experience.”
Huels said defenses are “quicker, stronger, more organized, well-coached.”
“It’s tough to break through against the other team without a solid plan and chemistry,” Huels said. “It’s just a tougher game.”
McGinty said Huels will need to become quicker in the box – not only with his actions, but with his thoughts – to become a top-flight finisher.
“The speed at which you have to do things in the penalty area in our level, he needs to come to terms with pretty quickly,” McGinty said. “In high school, you may find yourself in a good shooting area, then you create another angle for yourself with a second touch or a third touch. At our level, your brain has to get you there and you have to be able to execute with one touch. How he’s going to score goals and just appreciate how quickly these decisions have to be made to get shots off is a big piece for him.
“But that happens with a lot of our guys. A lot of our guys want the perfect shot, and what they find out is that it ends up getting blocked, and so they end up not shooting at all. You don’t get a lot of second opportunities at our level.”
Huels appreciates the support McGinty offers on a daily basis.
“Definitely,” Huels said. “We get along well and he’s excited about what I can do in the future. I’m excited to see what I can do as well.”
McGinty said Huels is a rare case in that he is a Division I soccer player who also participated in another sport. Huels averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Waterloo basketball team.
“It told us, ‘Hey, you know what? If this young man does high-level soccer 10 months a year for the next four years, there’s a bit of potential in there that maybe we haven’t even seen yet,’” McGinty said. “Others have been doing soccer and nothing but soccer for five or six years straight. Ben, I think we would all agree, has some real upside.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm