By Thomas Regan
After a season that saw senior forward Ryan Walsh lead the men’s soccer team to its first winning season in 16 years, his Rider career came to an end in a disappointing 1-0 loss to Fairfield on Nov. 8.
Being eliminated in the first round of the MAAC playoffs forced Walsh to face an upsetting reality: He would no longer be the heart of Rider men’s soccer, a program that took a chance on him when his soccer career hit a bump in the road.
“I’ve been playing soccer for so long and to have it all just come to an end,” Walsh said. “Every day, I’d get up, I’d play soccer and that’s what I did for 19 years. Knowing that on Monday I wasn’t going to get up and have practice or be around the guys, I was upset. In my first week of not having soccer, I was bored. On Tuesday, I didn’t have soccer, so I just sat around and worked out.”
Throughout his Rider career, Walsh helped Head Coach Charlie Inverso take a struggling men’s soccer program to a contender because of his hard-working nature that has transformed the team since he was named captain this season.
Although Walsh has meant a great deal to Rider, the Bucknell Bisons’ recruited him first before cutting him in the summer of 2011.
“Originally I was at Bucknell. I committed there December of my senior year of high school,” Walsh said. “In late August, the coach decided to cut four players and I was one of the freshmen to be cut. I was in shock because I’ve never been cut from a team in my life. I thought I played pretty well.”
Envisioning a life without soccer was not something Walsh was prepared to do, so he immediately began to look for other places to pursue his collegiate soccer dream. Luckily for him, he was able to join Rider within a week of being cut and did not have to miss his freshman season.
“I was not going to not play soccer, and I knew Inverso just from being a local guy because he was a Hamilton guy and I was a Bordentown guy,” Walsh said. “So I called up Coach Inverso and asked him if he had a spot at Rider. He was like, ‘Yeah come down for a visit.’ So in about three days, I drove back from Bucknell, took a visit here, walked around campus, watched some practice and committed here. Everything’s history now.”
Walsh may not have the flashy numbers, totaling just six goals in his four-year Rider career, but he has always been there to pick up his teammates in the stressful moments.
While most of that work was done behind the scenes, Walsh’s hard work finally came to fruition when he put his team ahead 1-0 early against Marist early in the second period on Nov. 1. The game ultimately ended 2-0, a win that pushed the Broncs into third place in the MAAC, giving them a home playoff game.
Before he made a home for himself at Rider, Walsh was always a huge soccer fan and aspiring athlete.
“My sister played college soccer too; she played at Ithaca,” Walsh said. “She’s three years older than me, so when she was 7 and just started playing on teams, I was about 3 or 4, so my mom would drive me to her games. I was the type of kid who couldn’t sit on the sidelines, so I would bring a soccer ball and make my mom pass me the ball for the entire game.”
When Walsh was finally old enough to play competitively, he jumped on the chance and joined several teams throughout his younger days.
“I joined my first club team when I was 7 and that was back when I was in Bordentown. Then I moved from Bordentown club team to Robbinsville club team. Then I moved back to Bordentown, and when I was 15, I realized I really wanted to play in college, and the best way to play in college was to go to a good team and try to get recruited. So I went to a place called LSTS (Life Skills Through Soccer). I played there for about three years and eventually got to college to play college ball.”
This year, his first season as captain, Walsh was able to bring immense success to a program that had struggled for years. His ability to prevent conflict between the players helped prevent the team from becoming its own worst enemy.
“I basically just took over [Eric] Elgin’s role,” Walsh said. “Elgin was the captain last year, he was the go-to guy. If anyone had a problem, Elgin was able to deal with it. So, it was very easy to slide right into his role because he set it up for me. If there were any problems with the teams, they came to me and I tried to settle it without making a big scene. On the field, I wasn’t the best player and I didn’t necessarily make the team go. But I think I was one of the hardest workers, so just by leading by example.”
In the playoff loss to Fairfield, Walsh displayed that leadership when sophomore back Warren Holmes was letting the emotions of the game get the best of him. Walsh was able to help Holmes’ mind remain focused.
“He knows what I’m like as a player and he just said, ‘Warren, calm down, we need you on the field, and that it’s a must-win game,’” Holmes said. “He’s my captain, I have respect for him and he’s a calming influence. I’ve personally never met anyone who works as hard as Ryan. He can run forever without getting tired and that hard work rubs off onto everyone else. As a person he is respected too, which is important.”
Taking a chance on Walsh turned out to be one of the best decisions Rider soccer could have made, and Inverso is glad that the natural leader ended up playing for his team.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time, over 30 years, and he is probably one of only a handful of kids that I’ve had like him,” Inverso said. “Just in terms of how reliable the kid is, how tough he is, obviously hard-working, how much he’s respected by his teammates, particularly in light of the fact that it’s no secret that he’s not the most talented guy, but they have the utmost amount of respect for him for his work ethic.”
Though the team was in a rebuilding state under its then-first-year head coach, Walsh knew that the program had the ability to improve under Inverso’s guidance.
“When Coach Inverso came in, he was going to produce a winning team, he won so many games when he was with Mercer County College,” Walsh said. “I knew, at some point, this program would turn around. I was just hoping it was at some point within my four years. This year was a great year. I’m disappointed that it ended, but every season ends at some point.”
Now that his playing career is over, Walsh is certain he wants to pursue coaching. Since he will be graduating from Rider as an education major, Walsh hopes to teach high school and coach the school’s team.
“I will definitely get into coaching. Inverso asked me if I wanted to be on the staff next year, but I don’t think I’m going to do that because if I get a job in a high school, I’m going to coach at that high school. I want to share my knowledge with the guys and hope they enjoy their time playing because when it’s over, it really sucks.”
Inverso believes there is no one more suitable for teaching the minds of young students than Walsh.
“He’s going into being a teacher, and if I were a school superintendent, I would be fighting to get this kid. He is going to make a big difference in a lot of kids’ lives for a long time.”
Though he’s sure Walsh’s leadership will pay dividends for the education system, Inverso will miss his veteran presence moving forward.
“All of the years I’ve been coaching, I’ve never cried after a loss, and I did last Saturday,” Inverso said. “A huge reason was, after the huddle broke, I looked over and I said, ‘I am never going to coach this kid again.’ It really hit me hard. That’s the way we all feel about him, his teammates, too.
“I’d never want to compare sports to a battle, but if you were to use a metaphor, he’d be the guy everybody would want in their foxhole.”