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When Colin Clarke became the Carolina RailHawks’ coach, a new emphasis was placed on signing local players.
Despite the area’s success in producing soccer talent, the RailHawks did not have a Triangle native on last year’s roster. Raleigh’s Caleb Norkus was a fixture on the club for the franchise’s first four years, and the last Cary native was Steve Curfman in 2008.
But this year has brought together six players who once suited up for the same local youth soccer teams. Zack Schilawski, Austen King, Brian Ackley, Nick Millington, Justin Willis and Tommy Drake were reunited, and with the season in its final month, those six have had very different first years in the North American Soccer League.
Those who hail from local colleges are even more numerous. Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald and midfielders Amir Lowery and Austin da Luz are from Wake Forest, while midfielder Brian Shriver and recent addition Jordan Graye are from North Carolina.
Ackley started the local players’ offseason movement to the RailHawks. The Athens Drive High and Indiana University graduate played in Australia and the Czech Republic before spending last year with two lower-level clubs in Pennsylvania.
He knew RailHawks assistant Dewan Bader, who coached many of Ackley’s current teammates on the RailHawks’ U-23 team. Once the dominoes started to fall, Ackley and others began returning to the Triangle.
“Dewan played a big part of it,” Ackley said of his signing.
“Knowing what he brought to the table with the U-23s and the talent that was on that U-23 team I played with for two years … it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Ackley has contributed in his few stints this year, netting three goals in just 329 minutes. Injuries have hampered him in recent weeks.
Schilawski is the most noteworthy of the group. The Cary native scored a hat trick in his first home game in Major League Soccer for the New England Revolution.
But after his second year with the team, the forward had just three more goals.
When the Revolution decided to part ways with Schilawski, a player it had taken ninth overall in the MLS Draft just two years before, it did so just a month before the season started.
Most MLS teams already had their rosters set, meaning Schilawski would have to turn his attention to a Division 2 club.
The logical club to sign with was in his hometown.
The Cary High and Wake Forest University graduate has four goals this year for the RailHawks and is eighth in minutes played.
“There are a lot of good players fighting for your spot,“ Schilawski said of MLS. “It’s been nice to get a nice, long consistent string of games under my belt.
“In MLS it was usually 10 games in, 10 games out, 10 games in, 10 games out. It kind of ebbs and flows up there a little more.”
Perhaps the most surprising ascension of the young players comes from one of the youngest. King, 22, is in his rookie professional season after graduating last year from Elon.
Yet he’s sixth in minutes played after spending most of the season as a fixture at center back.
“The good Lord took care of me,” said King, a Wilson native.
“I think I got a couple breaks here and there.”
It hasn’t always been easy.
The RailHawks’ defense has been a constant source of criticism this year, especially in the early season.
But King knows he’s improved, and he tries to learn as much as he can from three defenders older than 30 who have started alongside him at times.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who are real experienced and (I) learned a lot from them,” King said.
“For me personally, I found that the game, at this level, comes down to inches and feet. And a lot of it has to deal with your mental aspect.”
The Millington name has been going strong in the local youth soccer scene since Nick Millington attended Middle Creek High for two years before taking part in the U.S. U-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla., for his junior and senior seasons.
Younger brother Matt was an all-conference player at Middle Creek last season, and this season Brandon is ranked one of the top sophomores in the southeast region. The family has been going to games at WakeMed Soccer Park since the Carolina Courage of the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association was playing.
So when Millington, who played at Wake Forest before finishing at Elon in fall 2011, wanted to pursue his professional career, it only made sense that he try out for the RailHawks.
“It’s always been a team I’ve known about and followed,” Millington said. “It was always my first choice.”
Millington, who plays midfield, has appeared in one NASL match this year.
Willis hasn’t played at all this season, but he’s grateful to be a member of the RailHawks.
As a Wakefield High and N.C. State graduate, Willis hasn’t had to leave Raleigh to start his college or professional soccer career.
“I really thank the organization for letting me come in and play my rookie year here in my hometown,” Willis said. “It’s such an ideal situation.”
If not being able to see the field during NASL play has been hard, at least Willis has the support of several friends he knows from playing youth, high school and college soccer in the Triangle.
“The soccer world is just a tight-knit community,” Willis said.
“Word got out that we were all back in town, and it was just funny walking in the locker room and seeing all the familiar faces.”
At this time last year, Drake was an assistant coach for Carrboro High School, the 2A boys’ soccer runner-up.
The Chapel Hill High and Clemson University graduate was still exploring his options for a professional career.
A knee tear just before the 2011 MLS had put his career on hold.
But Carolina signed Drake, who was appreciative of the chance to play and get back in shape.
“I definitely wanted to keep playing and strive for the highest level. This was a spot where I thought I could come back and play, a spot where I wanted to be,” Drake said.
“I was struggling with a couple things in preseason. It was the first thing I had done, really, coming off injury.”
Like Willis and Millington, Drake’s contract has a team option for next season. The local players hope they’ve shown enough promise to get another chance to play close to home for another year.