Nick Carroll’s unlikely journey

Updated: September 12, 2017

Nick Carroll got a lot of playing time as a freshman. By Owen Main

On Sunday evening, Nick Carroll scored the first goal of his Cal Poly career. It was an 81st minute goal that gave the Cal Poly men’s soccer program a huge boost, their first win of the season, and a home victory in front of over 5,000 WOW Week participants — incoming freshmen that the team hopes will be the future of Cal Poly soccer fans. 

Carroll was a defender without any goals to his name, so the goal was not a likely one anyway. If you know his story, you know how unlikely it really was. 

Changes at the top

The start to Carroll’s career — the fall of 2014 — was a tumultuous one for Cal Poly men’s soccer. Incumbent coach Paul Holocher left the program days into the start of Fall camp. Carroll, an incoming freshman, found some success under interim coach Phil Ruskin. He started 11 games that season, mostly at left back. For a team that liked to play with attacking wing backs, Carroll’s long runs down the sideline became a staple opposite right back and current professional Kip Colvey. The team’s lack of depth at defender and numerous injuries at the position pressed at least one other freshman into action along the way. The team did what it had to do to stay afloat. A star midfielder played central defender. Just about anyone who wasn’t injured played big minutes.

It wasn’t ideal, but Carroll was getting playing time.

The Mustangs got off to a decent start under Ruskin, but lost four of their final five games in conference and picked up just four points in division play. In December of 2014, Athletic Director Don Oberhelman hired former US Men’s National Team coach Steve Sampson to lead the Cal Poly program. 

Steve Sampson was hired to coach Cal Poly in December of 2014. By Owen Main

Carroll had acquitted himself adequately on the field in 2014, but as the season progressed, things got harder. School work wasn’t a priority.

Neither Carroll or Sampson got into specifics, but both recognized off-field and on-field issues. 

“I made a lot of mistakes,” said Carroll, a Business major with a focus in entrepreneurship. “I put myself in situations I shouldn’t have been in.”

“I let the fact that I was getting playing time [as a freshman] get to my head,” said Carroll. 

As Cal Poly seemed to be weathering the storm, the double whammy of soccer and school was hitting Carroll hard.

“He had some academic issues,” said Sampson. “Like most freshmen, they tend to test the waters on and
off the field. That leads to a lot of life lessons.”

The spring after he was hired, Sampson had seen enough. Carroll had made too many bad decisions, so Sampson made the decision to cut the left back. 

 No soccer

“I told myself that was it for me,” said Carroll, who was no longer a part of the program. He sulked. “My feeling was ‘I hate soccer right now.'”

During what should have been his sophomore season playing the sport he loved, Carroll didn’t play during Fall quarter. But over winter break in 2015, he had an epiphany. At home for the holiday, Carroll sat in his room and couldn’t get the game out of his mind. He confessed to his father how much he missed soccer. They had a long talk. 

Just 19 years old at the time, Carroll realized he really wasn’t ready to give up completely on his soccer dreams. He found out that it wouldn’t be an easy road back.

He contacted Sampson and they talked. He met with Sampson and Athletic Faculty Representative, Dr. Ken Walker. Walker, a former athletic director at Cal Poly, is slated for induction into the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame this Fall.

Walker and Sampson gave Carroll some guidelines. They included a 3.0 GPA for the winter quarter. At the end of the quarter, after regular meetings with Walker and Sampson, Carroll earned a 3.4 GPA — his best yet at Cal Poly.

“Nothing slides with Steve,” said Carroll of Sampson. “He doesn’t care about us as soccer players only, he cares about us as human beings. He wants to know everything that’s going on.”

Carroll also met with some of the leaders on the team. It was a long process, but after his successful winter quarter, Carroll had his chance. He would be allowed to rejoin the team for spring ball.

Gaining confidence

It took a bit of time to shake off the rust. Having spring practice was helpful. Still, Carroll didn’t have his old, familiar starting spot back by the time the fall of 2016 rolled around. After not starting or playing much early in the season, Carroll played in a home game against UCLA, where he notched an assist in a 1-0 Cal Poly win — easily their biggest win of 2016. 

“I felt like, ‘I’m back,'” said Carroll of the UCLA game. He would go-on to play in all 17 games in 2016. 

Upper-class leader

Nick Carroll has developed into a reliable left back on Cal Poly’s men’s soccer team. By Owen Main

Nick Carroll is listed as a junior in terms of eligibility, but it’s his fourth year on-campus. He’s been through three coaches and his stint off the team. He’s a student who presents himself as someone who is thankful for the second chance he was given. 

Carroll pointed to a culture turnaround in the soccer program as an important contributing factor to his personal changes as well. 

“There’s been a 180 degree turnaround with culture,” he said of the soccer program. “When I came in, there was a different set of standards and rules.”

He knows Sampson has coached at the highest levels.

“[Sampson] knows what special teams have to sacrifice,” said Carroll. “Everybody now holds everyone accountable to an incredibly high level.”

Sampson reciprocated the respect.

“He’s matured incredibly,” said Sampson. “I know how hard he’s worked to turn his life around on and off the soccer field.” 

“Our soccer program is trying to be exceptional both on and off the field. [Nick] accepted it, took on the challenge, and is reaping the rewards.”

No time like now

On Sunday, Carroll took a perfectly-placed pass from teammate Jose Rivera and blasted it with his dominant left foot through the arms of the keeper and into the back of the net for a late, game-winning goal. It was Carroll’s first as a Mustang

He ran toward the big crowd of WoWies, who cheered for him. He celebrated with his teammates. Few in the stadium know the road he took to get to that moment.

“He’s proud of what I’ve done,” said Carroll of Sampson. “And I am too.”