Matt Keys stared at the scorer’s table a little confused and unaware of what was happening. During the 85th minute of the UMass men’s soccer team’s Senior Day game against St. Bonaventure last November, the Minutemen captain was being subbed off. Holding a comfortable 3-0 lead, interim head coach Devin O’Neill decided to praise his senior with a final curtain call.
“I didn’t know he was going to sub me,” Keys said. “Then they called my name and I said, ‘Holy crap, this is it.’”
Keys jogged off the field to a standing ovation from what he joked was 50 people. After the celebratory high-fives from teammates and sentimental hugs from coaches, Keys hit a wall emotionally.
“Oh this is over,” he said to himself. “I’m not going back out there.”
Sitting on the sideline for the final five minutes of his last game as a collegiate athlete, his mind wandered. Tough, sad and emotional: The three overwhelming feelings that jockeyed for position in his heart.
The 22-year old Norfolk native wanted a couple of more games donning the maroon and white jersey.
Fortunately for Keys, his competitive soccer playing days are not over
The defensive center back will continue to pursue a career in professional soccer after graduating this May. It’s a decision not every college athlete is privileged to make but also a decision that doesn’t guarantee anything.
Troy Power’s final college hoorah for the UMass hockey team wasn’t exactly a storybook ending.
The senior forward suffered a concussion during the Minutemen’s thrilling 4-3 game one victory against Notre Dame in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament. He toughed out the injury and skated until the final horn, which sounded after six hours and five overtimes.
At the time, the former captain wasn’t aware that the severity of the concussion would eventually force him to sit the series’ final two games, which the Minutemen lost, officially ending his UMass career.
Power couldn’t stomach the idea of wearing a suit and tie while his teammates fought to keep the season alive – he felt like he deserved to play.
“You’re thinking, there’s no way I’m sitting in the stands watching my last college game,” Power said while shaking his head.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
Power took the next month off to rehab from the concussion and other lingering injuries.
He needed to be fully healthy and ready to go for the next phase of trying to break into the NHL.
Power isn’t hanging up the skates anytime soon. Like Keys, he’s still chasing the childhood dream.
Born in Australia, Keys moved to the United States when he was four years old. He stepped foot on his first soccer field two years later for the primary reason of meeting new friends in a new country. Although many children move on from the soccer scene after a stint in the youth leagues, Keys stuck with the “weird” sport because it wasn’t mainstream.
“I just didn’t want to stop playing,” Keys said. “I was pretty good at it and I made most of my friends.”
Early on, success on the field was never a given for Keys. He wasn’t a starter for his club team during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. His skill set didn’t match the other players who were simply faster and stronger.
Keys remembers a specific moment during his sophomore year when his club coach delivered a not-so inspiring speech.
“He said to the group of us players, ‘If you don’t make (junior varsity) you’re freshmen year in high school, you might as well try to go kick field goals because you can’t play soccer in college’,” Keys said. “I actually made the freshman team my freshman year, so I was kind of doubted upon by him.
“After his comments, I definitely used it as motivation to work hard.”
He can thank his coach for those kind words.
A year later, Keys earned a spot on the competitive Under 18 New England Revolution Academy club team. It was during that season he believed the possibility of playing Division I soccer was a reality.
“It showed me that, ‘Oh, I’m good enough to play in college if I keep working and stay focused,’” Keys said.
He was good enough.
In 2011 as a freshman, Keys started on defense in all 19 games for UMass.
Power grew up in Camarillo, California, an hour northwest of Los Angeles. He laced up his first pair of rollerblades at the age of four, during a time when hockey wasn’t too popular in the Golden State. After his mom, Rhonda, brought him to his first Los Angeles Kings game, Power was hooked.
“Living in a cul-de-sac, with a net setup outside,” Power said, “it was kind of over from there.”
He didn’t get into any other sports. Hockey was life and dedication was never an issue. Travel hockey was Power’s only choice in California. The nearest rink to his team’s practice? Ninety miles away – the distance he traveled four to five days a week to play for the California Wave’s U14 and U16 clubs.
“If I wanted to play college hockey, it was a sacrifice I had to make,” Power said.
Those 180-mile drives each day paid off.
During his junior year of high school, Power competed in the United States Hockey League – the country’s elite junior hockey program intended to promote and develop players primed for college competition.
After graduating high school in 2008, Power moved to Nebraska where he played for the Omaha Lancers for another two USHL seasons. Academically, he completed four classes at the local community college over the two-year span (the league limits the number of credits a player may take). He entered UMass as a 20-year-old freshman.
The professional dream never wavered during their college days. Despite the inevitable speed bumps along the way, the pursuit remained intact.
Keys utilized his rarely matched 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame to irritate opponents defensively as a four-year starter at center back. He earned Atlantic 10 All-Conference First Team honors this past season, three years after his All-Rookie team selection.
“What separates him is his ability to anticipate and make decisions at the right time,” said first-year UMass assistant coach David Lindholm.
“He’s the biggest guy out there and he sees the field well, directs other players, and closes down attacks.”
Unfortunately for Keys, individual success didn’t necessarily equate to team wins. He was the leader of a squad that never won more than five games in a season during the past four years (3-14-1 in 2014).
When former Minutemen coach Sam Koch died last summer after 23 years on the sideline, the senior entered the season with fellow senior co-captain Josh Schwartz as the longest tenured members – player or coach – of the program.
“We had a lot of turnover as a team,” Keys said. “We (Keys and Schwartz) knew more about the program and school than anyone else there. We never had a true high moment, but we kept working towards it…I look at it as you made it through and survived.”
Power was a comforting presence on and off the ice for UMass during his five-year career. His numbers (20 goals and 30 assists in 122 career games) are not earth-shattering but they also don’t justify his overall impact.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound forward battled for playing time on talented rosters that competed in the Hockey East Association, arguably the NCAA’s most talented conference.
UMass coach John Micheletto admires Power’s “diligent” approach to the game. The former captain brought a humble attitude that resonated with teammates; he never overreacted to a high or a low.
“He’s got a very complete skill set,” Micheletto said. “The versatility of what he brings to the game is really special. We could put him anywhere in the lineup and he’d have an influence on the game. He can play end of game situations whether we’re up a goal defending the lead or down a goal trying to tie it up. He can play with the most skilled guys or a checking line role.”
Power’s college career hit a pause after tearing his medial collateral ligament early in his junior year. The injury forced him to redshirt and miss the remaining 23 games of the 2012-13 season.
After a four-month rehab process that tested him mentally more than physically, Power returned the following season and recorded a career-high 17 points on 10 goals and seven assists.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” Power said. “But it refreshed my love for hockey and how fortunate I am to be here.”
The first step for graduating college athletes who were not drafted by an amateur or professional team is to stay relevant among the eyes of scouts by joining tryouts, camps and combines.
After the soccer season ended last fall, Keys actually had the opportunity to join a soccer camp hosted by the Rochester Rhinos – a professional soccer team in the United Soccer League – and go to two SoccerViza combines in Connecticut, but he passed. Attending those camps would have forced Keys to forgo his final spring semester and delay completing his sports management degree.
He declined the invitations, prioritizing academic security while also holding an optimistic point of view. He believed that training for another full year would enhance his professional chances.
“I felt like getting a degree and graduating with my class was more important to me at that time,” Keys said.
“If I keep training, there will still be some opportunities,” Keys said. “I’ll find out if I’m wrong or not but that’s the way I looked at it; those opportunities will hopefully still be around.”
Keys’ last college soccer game ended back in November, but his team influence remains strong. He currently acts as an assistant coach during UMass’ spring season, which includes four or five practices per week and five matches.
Despite spending only one season with Keys, Lindholm’s optimism regarding Keys’ ability to take the next step is encouraging. Having previously worked in the media relations departments of Major League Soccer clubs CD Chivas USA and the Colorado Rapids for the past seven years, Lindholm is familiar with the demands of becoming a professional soccer player.
In Lindholm’s eyes, Keys passes the “potential” test.
“(Keys is a) very good player who could make that jump if that’s something he wants to do,” Lindholm said. “You face long odds and have to be really dedicated to it and he’s great at that already…He has a great soccer mind.”
Keys is currently in the process of signing a semi-professional contract with Mass United FC of the American Soccer League. The club, based in Revere, competes in one match per week from late April to late June.
“It’s a way to stay sharp soccer-wise,” Keys said. “Stay fit, make connections and keep having fun.
“It’s a part time thing so I can’t live off of it,” Keys added. “But it’s important staying in the soccer world.”
Keys also intends on hosting his annual MK Soccer camp this summer in Norfolk to train high school soccer players.
When discussing his ambition to don an NHL jersey, there’s no hesitation in Power’s speech.
From a 20-year-old freshman who “didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes” to an accomplished 25-year-old senior who’s “figured out how to be successful,” Power has made undeniable strides.
Why would he stop now?
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life,” Power said of playing in the NHL. “I feel that if I didn’t give it a shot I’d be selling myself short.”
Power was given a shot in early March after his season ended.
He was invited to play in the East Coast Hockey League, a professional minor league. Unfortunately, the season-ending concussion Power suffered in the conference tournament cost him the opportunity to make an early impression among NHL scouts.
“I was really, really disappointed,” Power said. “It was really hard for me. (Playing in ECHL) would have been nice … I thought it was best to make sure I got full healthy. Concussions aren’t really something you can push through like a bruise or a strain.”
Power will get a chance to redeem himself this summer.
The NHL holds developmental camps early in July, following the NHL Draft in late June. The American Hockey League – the NHL’s top minor league – runs camps shortly after in August. Power can also receive other ECHL invitations during the process.
“I’m excited for it,” Power said. “I feel like I’m ready. Just try to climb the ladder and see how far I can go.”
In his three years at the helm, Micheletto has seen a handful of UMass players move on to sign with the AHL, including Frank Vatrano, Connor Allen, Steve Mastalerz, Conor Sheary and Joel Hanley among others.
Having witnessed Power’s growth first-hand, the coach believes his former captain is primed for the next level.
“His chances for finding an opportunity are pretty good,” Micheletto said, “because I know as a coach, Troy brings things to the table that coaches value. He’s willing to do a lot of the little things that make players successful, and guys like Troy usually find their ways into the lineup by doing things that aren’t sexy.
“I certainly feel like he’s got an opportunity to compete somewhere,” Micheletto added. “Now it’s a matter of making sure once he’s there, he’s doing things he needs to do to progress forward.”
Power recently began to accelerate his training following the postseason rehab process. Once he returns home to the west coast after graduation, Power will follow a strict workout program recommended from Ryan Feek, UMass’ director of strength and conditioning.
In the summer, Power also runs his own private hockey lessons 20 minutes from his hometown in southern California. It’s an activity that allows him to “give back” to the community.
Both Keys and Power currently communicate with their respective “agents” (family advisor) regarding the process of signing up for amateur and professional camps.
The odds of successfully making the next jump may not be in the favor of Keys or Power.
Keys has to defy the NCAA’s most recent statistic that shows only 1.4 percent of total collegiate soccer players were drafted in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
In his favor, however, is the fact that of the 76 picks, 72 were graduated NCAA student-athletes.
The NHL Draft is a completely different system, where a majority of players are picked prior to skating in their first college hockey game. In the 2013 NHL Draft, only 60 of the possible 211 picks were NCAA athletes. Currently, only 31 percent of players on active NHL rosters even played college hockey.
On the surface, those numbers might appear daunting. However, they don’t tell the whole story. There are multiple avenues for players to reach the pros.
Keys and Power are no strangers to beating statistics.
According to the NCAA’s estimated probability of competing in college athletics, only 1.4 percent of high school soccer players advance to Division I soccer and 4.6 percent play Division I hockey.
Shooting for the stars but preparing to fall on the clouds: the circumstance when the dream is cut short.
Accepting the reality in which a career in professional sports doesn’t come to fruition is like fighting the ultimate nightmare that came to life.
It’s a topic of conversation that Keys and Power weren’t thrilled to discuss.
Then again, when does an ambitious Division I student-athlete ever want to elaborate on the possibility of ending a pivotal chapter that lasted nearly two decades?
“I don’t like to dwell on negative points,” Keys said. “I thought about that after the Senior Day game. It was a shock at first.”
“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” Power added. “Knowing that you might have to close a chapter on something you’ve done your whole life.
“This year was the first time it was like, ‘Well, I got to have a good year because there might not be a next year.’ It just clicks in the back of your head and makes you realize how lucky you are to do what you do every day.”
In terms of preparing for a life after competitive sports, there’s a reason the word “student” comes before “athlete.”
Keys took college academics seriously. He’s earned Dean’s List honors and A-10 Commissioner’s Honor Roll (3.5 GPA or better) the past two years.
The sport management major didn’t actually play competitive soccer this past summer. He interned with the New England Patriots’ sales department and his high school’s athletic department.
“It gave me a brief look at what not playing soccer was like for a little,’ Keys said. ‘And having a job 30 to 40 hours a week…That’s the best way I would say I prepared for that. It was a little funky. I definitely missed (soccer), but it was nice to relax.”
Lindholm said Keys owns the blueprint for all student-athletes in the similarly clouded predicament: One that holds class work and sports to the same standard.
“You encourage them to be like Matt Keys,” Lindholm said. “He’s going to have a million other things just because he’s done all that work beyond the soccer field as well. You want (student-athletes) to develop as people too. You don’t want anyone so narrow that being a pro athlete is their only option.”
A life revolved around soccer seems inevitable for Keys.
“(The) main goal is to be a college athletic director someday in terms of my profession if soccer doesn’t work out,” Keys said. “For me, long-term, having a stable, concrete job, being a college AD would be my dream.”
Power currently interns with the UMass Media Relations department.
The communication and psychology double major is confident his degree provides him multiple options at different career paths if competitive hockey is out of the conversation.
While he’s relished the opportunity to experience the other side of sports media, Power admits he personally hasn’t given the post-hockey scenario too much time and thought.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing hockey,” Power said. “But if for some reason I don’t enjoy it anymore, if it’s not a good time, I’m okay with understanding that one day I’m going to have to get a job and stuff like that. If it was to end, I’d be content with everything it’s given me. The places I’ve gotten to go, the people I met…But that’s why I want to continue to keep it going.
“If I could play hockey instead of putting on a suit and grinding behind a desk,” Power said, “yeah, (it’s) ideal.”
Micheletto said the life after hockey topic is an “ongoing conversation” he has with all of his players that starts as early as the recruitment process.
He believes the toughest part is a player’s willingness to be honest about his circumstance.
“That realization comes to different players at different times,” Micheletto said. “Not everybody has that fairy tale ending. When that point comes, it’s about embracing a new challenge and putting that degree to work.”
As graduation inches closer, uncertainty looms larger for Keys and Power.
The typical “What are your plans after graduation?” becomes even cloudier for the two athletes who haven’t yet called quits on competitive sports.
Those life-altering decisions may take more than a year depending on their success in the upcoming camps and tryouts.
“Everything’s still up in the air,” Keys said. “I’d rather know exactly what I’m doing, whether I’m playing or working. But it’s great to know that soccer is still a possibility. It feels good. I’m up to do anything that it takes to make it happen.”
Power shrugged at the idea of his unpredictable near future.
“That’s the hard part, there’s no certainty yet,” Power said. “When you come to college you’re almost on a four-year contract where you know where you’re going to be. And for me, I don’t.”
Dealing with uncertainty is a special virtue.
Lindholm could point to multiple athletes that forfeited their professional soccer dreams due to an absent feeling of security after a short period of time during the hectic process.
Becoming a professional athlete doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger.
“There are going to be things that are beyond their control,” Lindholm said. “You can go to a tryout and play really well, but maybe a coach isn’t looking for a player in your position. A number of things outside of your control can derail your hopes of playing professionally. Being patient and dedicated enough to it, for long enough to get your opportunity.”
Keys and Power are forced to play the waiting game.
No, they won’t be sitting around waiting for job offers; their application is a little different.
While the odds remain stacked high against a couple of 20-year olds still lucky and talented enough to aim for their original childhood dreams, one thing is certain: Nothing will stop them from trying.
“I want to make a team,” Power said. “I want to be a big part of that team and enjoy my first year of pro hockey and hopefully it’s a successful one.
“The uncertainty will drive me this summer. It’ll be in the back of my mind when I’m working out and skating. It is scary, but it’s exciting too.”
Joey Saade can be reached at [email protected]