At a school like Penn, not many athletes go on to play professionally. Doug Glanville, Jerome Allen and Jim Finn were all talented enough to take their athletic careers to the next level, but they are more the exceptions than the rule. After his season with the Hershey Wildcats of the A-League, former Penn soccer goalie Mike O'Connor is on his way to membership on that short list. O'Connor, who graduated in May, was a star on Rhodes Field from his rookie season in 1996. That year, he earned All-Ivy team honors as well as All-Mid-Atlantic team status. He was also named 1996 Ivy Rookie of the Year. Needless to say, his future looked bright. During a club practice in the spring of 1997, however, O'Connor tore his meniscus while diving for a ball, thus putting his young career in jeopardy. After surgery and extensive rehab, he was able to play his sophomore year, but his knee hadn't fully recovered. He had surgery again after sophomore year, but in his junior season, O'Connor still hadn't regained his top form that was so impressive in '96. But O'Connor made a dramatic comeback last season, starting all 17 games, posting a 91.8% save percentage and earning All-Ivy honorable mention. For his career, he holds the Quakers record for shutouts with 14.5, total minutes played with 5,750 and minutes played in a season with 1,560. "A keeper of Mike's caliber has the ability to singlehandedly keep the team in a game," Penn coach Rudy Fuller said. "There were a number of games last season when he did just that." Even though his senior season came to a close, O'Connor had his career back on track. So he decided to continue playing. "A lot of my friends were interviewing for jobs," O'Connor said. "But soccer was something I really wanted to pursue." After an unsuccessful attempt to make a team in Boston, O'Connor was given a chance to play for the Delaware Wizards. Balancing classes and practice, O'Connor played with the Wizards, a division II team, through mid-June. He impressed the coaches so much in the short time he was with the Wizards that he was promoted to the Hershey Wildcats, a team that acts a feeder to D.C. United, the Major League Soccer team. Even at America's second-highest level of professional soccer, O'Connor continued to excel. He started eight of the team's last 10 games, and the Wildcats posted a 6-1-1 record during that span. In those eight starts, O'Connor recorded five shutouts and maintained an 0.76 goals against average. Even though he is having so much success on the Wildcats, O'Connor believes that there is a tremendous difference between college and professional soccer. "[Professional] soccer is so much more physical, much faster, and overall more exciting," he said. This experience has also allowed O'Connor to play against some of the best players in the world. In one game, the Philadelphia native faced a one-on-one situation with Jamaican international Onandi Lowe, a 6'3" forward. O'Connor is the first Quaker under Fuller to get the opportunity to play professionally. "It's really a great thing not only for Mike, but also for the Penn program," the third-year coach said. The Wildcats ended their season in fifth place in the A-League's 13-team Eastern Conference. They made the playoffs but lost in the first round to perennial league powerhouse Rochester by a 3-2 score. Despite the sour end to the season, O'Connor's enthusiasm was not dampened. "The Rochester game was a tough loss. But they have the most fans there, and we got to play in front of 17,000 people," he said. "It was really exciting." The Wildcats signed O'Connor to a two-year contract, so he is almost assured a spot on the roster next season. In the offseason, O'Connor will probably land a position on an indoor soccer team to keep in shape for next year. As for the possibility of making it to the MLS, O'Connor is hopeful, but reserved. "A few guys got called up from the team this year," he said. "You never know what is going to happen. I'm hoping to have a real good preseason and take it from there." One thing O'Connor does know is that he does not regret making this tough and unorthodox decision. "Even if I had a great job, I'd know I'd always be second guessing how far I could have taken soccer," he said.Comments powered by Disqus
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