Blaine Carver's dream season nearly ended before it began.
The torn right meniscus required surgery, and recovery time, putting the 2010 Soldotna High School grad under the knife less than three weeks before his first collegiate practice.
Seattle Pacific University men's soccer coach Mark Collings wondered: Might redshirting the Alaska freshman be the best move?
"When he came into camp, we didn't know what to expect," Collings said. "We didn't know how much we were going to get out of him."
The redshirt was never placed.
Carver, hailing from an area not known for producing a lot of college soccer talent, was recently named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
He finished with eight goals, second-most on the team, and started each of the Falcons' final 14 games. The team won 10 of 12 matches to close the season, finishing second in the conference with a 10-6-2 record.
Only a loss against Western Washington University in the season finale kept Seattle Pacific out of the 32-team NCAA Division II Tournament.
"It's been everything I ever dreamed of," Carver said by phone from Seattle.
Carver couldn't say the same about four months ago.
After amassing 77 goals over his high-school career and being the named the 2009 Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year as well as the Northern Lights Conference Most Valuable Player, Carver signed a letter of intent with Seattle Pacific in February.
He tore his right meniscus in March, but it was not until July that an MRI revealed the problem. Carver underwent surgery July 30, with Seattle Pacific's Aug. 16 training camp looming.
"I came into training camp pretty nervous," said Carver, whose mobility was limited during preseason practices. "After a few weeks, I felt like I hit my stride."
After the Falcons struggled to an 0-5-1 start, Collings called a team meeting, a gathering the coach called "pretty intense, but overall productive."
During the meeting, Collings remembered, members of the team rose to their feet and proclaimed Carver deserved a position in the starting lineup.
"That's the ultimate compliment," Collings said.
From then on, Carver was a mainstay in the starting 11.
He scored three goals against the University of Mary in an 8-1 win in October, emerging as one of the squad's top scoring threats.
Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers had watched Carver play in the previous game, making a trip to see his former player.
"More than anything, it's a testament to his work ethic," Siemers said of Carver's success. "It's a credit to him, the work he does on and off the field."
That work rate figures to translate into more success for Carver next season, though Collings believes opposing teams will be prepared to defend him.
Carver said he hopes to get stronger for his sophomore season. He also wants improve his vision and ballhandling ability.
In high school, Carver remembered, it was easy to get away with mistakes because he was always one of the fastest players on the pitch.
At the collegiate level, however, he was exposed during times in which he was sloppy with the ball.
"Everything is faster," Carver said. "When you make a bad first touch, the defender is right on you."
The business administration major was happy to receive the all-freshman honor, an award he said was a surprise because he "never really thought about winning it," but his first goal for 2011 is to help the Falcons reach the postseason.
Carver was named the freshman of the year the same day Seattle Pacific saw its season end at the hands of Western Washington.
"It was kind of bittersweet," he said. "The main goal is definitely to get to the tournament."
Collings couldn't have asked for a better season from Carver, saying it's not often freshman make the sort of impact Carver did.
The coach is tempering his expectations of Carver for next season to avoid putting too much pressure on the young player.
But given the success he found in his inaugural college season after coming from a region not known for producing soccer stars, Collings isn't putting a lid on Carver's potential.
He is believed to be the first men's player from the peninsula to play Division II soccer.
Longtime Kenai Central High School coach David Landry said Wally Ward, who graduated in the early 2000s, went on to play at George Fox University, a Division III school in Newberg, Ore. Ben Histand, a 2002 Soldotna grad, played college ball at Oberlin College, a D-III school in Oberlin, Ohio.
Siemers couldn't remember any men's players going on to a Division II school, either, saying "I can't think of any," though there have been some who played junior college.
Skyview High School grads Trevor Barber, Matt Stalnick and Kyle Eshleman all played at junior colleges following high school, said Don Barber, who has coached in the area.
Carver's roots haven't gone unnoticed by Collings.
"How rare is it? It's really rare," Collings said. "It's hard enough to make the jump from high school to college. Then to make the jump he did, from the place he came, it speaks volumes to his work ethic."
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