It may not be on his birth certificate, but Hunter West must already be accustomed to seeing “prolific” tagged in front of his name.
With five goals to his name already this season, the freshman plundered four more as the Bulls (6-1-0) recorded back-to-back 4-2 wins against Memphis and Florida Atlantic.
The 19-year-old began his weekend goal haul with his first career hat trick against Memphis Friday. Sunday’s strike against FAU leaves him just one goal shy of last season’s top scorer Jason Cudjoe’s total – and it’s still only September.
Understandably, West is a little surprised at his immediate success.
“I knew that if I worked hard I would get goals, but I never knew that it would come out like this,” he said.
But regardless of his performance on the field, the Bradenton-born forward insists that the result is more important than any individual contribution.
“Goals mean something, but winning means more to me than scoring,” West said.
USF coach George Kiefer paid tribute to the all-around qualities of West’s game.
“Hunter is a great player, (but) the fact that he has so many goals is only part of it,” said Kiefer. “He works hard, he’s competitive. He’s a great kid to work with.”
In Friday’s game against Memphis, West was on the mark as early as the third minute, recording the Bulls’ quickest score this season. The freshman received the ball five yards from goal after Aaron Paroulek guided the ball from a Jeff Thwaites corner. While the Tigers’ defense hesitated, West scrambled the ball home from close range.
But it was a lead that lasted only seven minutes. With the Bulls’ defense uncharacteristically trying to employ the offside trap, a gem of a pass from Tigers defender Graham Gibbs enabled Andy Metcalf to score past Troy Perkins.
“They’re playing a trap, which we’ve never done in training,” said Kiefer. “Maybe they talked about it in the locker room, but I didn’t give it to them.”
Rustin Kluge’s first career goal restored the Bulls’ lead, but it was Brandon Streicher who received most of his teammates’ congratulations.
Receiving the ball on the left wing, the sophomore cut inside and beat two more men to find himself clear of the Tigers’ offside trap. With the Memphis defense in full pursuit, Streicher rounded Tigers’ keeper Clark Talley and beat one more defender before giving Kluge the simplest of chances.
“Streicher worked really hard to get it. I was just in the right place at the right time,” Kluge said. “I would give him the credit for the goal.”
Once again, however, the Bulls surrendered their lead.
From a half-cleared corner, Memphis returned the ball back into the Bulls’ penalty area where Justin Dyer controlled Peter Cummings’ header and beat Perkins in his near top corner.
Having warned his team of the dangers of the Tigers’ set plays, Kiefer said it was galling to see his team concede a goal in such a situation.
“When you give everybody all the answers and they don’t do well on the test, you can’t be happy,” said Kiefer.
West’s second goal came just two minutes from the interval.
The freshman’s pace and strength allowed him to get to Chris Raye’s pass first and side-foot the ball under Talley to put the Bulls 3-2 up at the break.
Mindful of Thwaites’ hat trick against him in last season’s 5-2 mauling, Memphis coach Richie Grant had largely neutralized the Bulls playmaker with a man-to-man marker. After the interval, Kiefer responded by pushing Thwaites into an advanced role for the second half and introducing Gabe Salgado into midfield.
“I was just trying to free Jeff up – the guy that was defending him wasn’t even watching the ball. He was just walking around with him all night,” Kiefer said.
But the tactical battle had switched to the Bulls’ half as Memphis, via a barrage of corners, long throws and crosses, hunted a third equalizer. It took a third goal from West to finally quell the Tigers’ attacks.
The Bulls’ No. 15 tapped in Paroulek’s cross from close range to complete his first hat trick at collegiate level to seal the win.
It was more of the same Sunday as the Bulls recovered from conceding an early goal to post a second 4-2 victory, their second road victory of the season, at FAU.
Filling in for the injured Thwaites, Gabe Salgado scored twice and provided one assist from midfield. The Bulls’ other goals came from West and Aaron Ortega, with Kevin Cowan contributing two assists.
Salgado said FAU’s style of play had made his transition to midfield relatively simple.
“They were physical, but it wasn’t as much as we expected,” said Salgado. “It made it easier to play in midfield.”
Summing up the Bulls’ weekend, Kiefer said the focus on change of possession in practice was reaping rewards on the field.
“We spent a lot of time working on transition and getting players into the box,” said Kiefer.
“To score eight goals in a weekend, I’ll take that any day.”
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org