July 25, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – For several mornings this week at the Marshall men’s soccer youth Day Camp at the Veterans Memorial Complex, Jack Hopkins has been guiding and coaxing plenty of the more than 100 attendees.
It’s good practice for Hopkins for the upcoming 2014 season.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” Hopkins said when asked about the kids.
Hopkins, a junior left back, might have the same reaction at times this season, as one of the captains for Coach Bob Gray’s 20th Marshall club. It’s a young team – the lone senior is keeper Danny Sellitti – and the Herd will be trying to bounce back from a 2-11-6 season.
Hopkins and fellow junior Nick Edgington emerged as captains in spring ball. Their leadership will be crucial as the Herd tried to climb in one of the toughest leagues in Division I men’s soccer, the nine-team Conference USA.
“It’s very important to show leadership,” Hopkins said after one of this week’s camp sessions. “We have a lot of new guys, and we have more foreign guys, and Nick is from New Zealand, so that helps. It’s just about bringing everyone together to get on the same page, which is kind of what I think we missed last season.
“I’m more of a lead-by-example, and that’s what Coach Gray said, but I think he wants me to try to open my mouth a little bit more.”
Hopkins’ presence is significant in the Marshall program, and his connection to Huntington runs deep. His grandfather, the late Jack Bennett, attended Huntington High and Hopkins – from Birmingham, Ala. -- has plenty of relatives in the region.
“Actually it’s kind of weird,” the 6-foot-1, third-year Herd starters said when asked how he ended up with the Herd. “My mom wanted to come up here to visit her dad’s grave, and she said there was a soccer camp here (at Marshall) so she brought me along.
“It was my sophomore year (at Vestavia Hills High School) and I signed up just to keep busy. I talked to Coach Gray and at the time, I really didn’t even see it as an option for school. I was just coming for camp.
“The coaches liked me , was just coming for camp, coaches like me and everything fell right into place. I realized there was a family connection here and I loved how small the campus was, too. It was a perfect fit.”
His two years in the Marshall program underscore that.
Hopkins scored four goals in 2012 and made the Conference USA all-Freshman Team. Two of his goals (against Radford and Memphis) were game-winning golden goals in overtime victories.
Last season, his three goals shared the Herd lead – and two of those came in the 88th minute and with 48.6 seconds left in regulation to tie games.
He’s been a clutch academic performer, too, winning a C-USA Commissioner’s Medal both seasons. Hopkins, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, takes a 3.72 GPA into the fall semester.
And while Hopkins “went green” in athletics when he chose Marshall, his major has turned that direction, too.
“I’m not sure yet,” Hopkins said when asked how he intends to use his degree work. “I kind of figured I’d do physical therapy when I came in, but in the recent semesters, I’m leaning more toward ecology work. I kind of did some of that this summer … went to Monongahela (National) Forest and did some research there.”
Gray saw one thing he liked about Hopkins from the first minutes of that camp five years ago.
“He’s a neat guy,” Gray said of Hopkins. “We started recruiting him real early in his sophomore year after he came to our Elite Camp. Jack caught my eye because he’s a left-footer, and I’m a little prejudiced to lefties because I’m a lefty … you never have enough left-footers on your soccer team.
“He’s always comfortable with the ball, smart, has the ability to read the game before it happens. What he needed -- and he’s starting to get into -- is more toughness, the competitiveness to play at this level. But Jack has started just about every game since his freshman year. When he’s healthy, he’s been very good for us.”
Last season, the Herd didn’t win in its last 12 matches, and five of the losses came to three C-USA teams that reached the NCAA Tournament’s 48-team field – New Mexico, Charlotte and Old Dominion – No. 18 UAB (which was upset in the C-USA tourney and didn’t get a postseason bid, and a Maryland team that fell in the NCAA title game to Notre Dame.
The Lobos also made the College Cup final four. So, Gray’s team lost to half of the national semifinalists.
The Herd struggled to score – a 35-13 deficit in goals, but only trailed foes 248-226 in shots. Marshall went 0-6-1 in overtime.
“It was tough,” Hopkins said. “We had 11 freshmen last year and only four are returning, and now we have 11 more freshmen. Last season we were knocking on the doorstep, we just never walked in. We had the ball on the line about every game, it just didn’t fall our way.
I don’t know, I feel like things will be different because Nick and I will kind of take the team by the reins, and I feel like the freshmen coming in will have a better attitude than last year.
“The center back issue, we have five or six coming in and we’ll have great competition, which is what we need. Then, we’re bringing in three strikers, so there’s good competition there, too.”
Gray said the Herd team’s appreciation for Hopkins extends beyond the player.
“He lives in Birmingham, which is in C-USA (UAB), but he always wanted to come here and now he’s embraced being here,” Gray said. “I’ve got to put in a good word for his parents, too, Mark and Jill. His mom, Jill, she does all the stuff we need to get done, our senior celebration, tailgating with the parents, all of it. I don’t think she’s missed a game. She bleeds green than most of our Big Green supporters. She’s phenomenal.”
Hopkins played left outside last season, but Gray said the junior will return to his best position, left back.
“The unique thing is his best position is left back, but we had to shuffle him around because of injuries,” Gray said. “He can play in the midfield, even play up top but I anticipate be back at his old left back.
“He’s a defender, but what we like about it is he gets forward a lot from that position. He’s good at getting crosses in, good at even sniffing goals from that position. Really, when you watched the World Cup this year, a lot of the attack came from the defenders coming forward, and that’s what Jack can do best.”
Gray wants Hopkins to lead from the back, too.
“Jack is what I call one of these blue-collar kids,” Gray said. “He’s not going to stand out, and he’s not going to be vocal – I wish he’d be a little more vocal – but we know he’s going to get the job done.”