It’s not difficult for Hunter West to recall the exact moment he found his niche in life.
“In my first game, I scored 13 goals. I was 7 years old. I stuck with the sport ever since,” West said.
Thirteen goals in one game?
“Actually, in the first half. Then the coach took me out.”
The prodigious debut proved to be typical of the Bradenton-born striker who, from youth soccer onward, has plundered goals at an astonishing rate. West accrued more than 100 goals at the youth level, a habit he continued in a high-school career that yielded 89 goals and 56 assists.
“It seemed to be so easy for me; it just came natural,” West said. “When I was younger, I had more athletic ability. Go ’round the players, dribble, shoot, score. Once I started getting older, under-12s, it started getting a little bit harder.”
With his first season at the collegiate level under his belt, West’s knack of putting the ball in the back of the net has shown no sign of drying up. His haul of 14 goals and three assists saw him finish second in Conference USA in scoring and become the first Bull to receive the C-USA Freshman of the Year award. In December, West was one of only two freshmen named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s All-South third team. Further recognition came with his inclusion in College Soccer News’ national All-Freshman first team.
Hailing from a sporting family, West followed the example of his older brother Taylor and, in spite of a brief flirtation with baseball, gravitated toward the game he found came naturally to him. Prior to his momentous debut, he had barely kicked a ball. Goal scorers, it seems, are born, not made.
“That was the first game I actually played,” West said. “We practiced a little bit before, so you could say I kicked a ball around then, but I knew what I had to do, and that was score for us to win.
“I think everyone is blessed with a talent in life, and I think my talent is the ability to play soccer.”
West continued scoring freely in youth soccer, playing U-16 club soccer for the Tampa Bay Kickers, where he benefited from the coaching of former professional soccer player Peter Ward, who played as a striker for Brighton and Hove Albion and Nottingham Forest in England.
“He helped me learn how to get free from defenders and get the space you need to make a shot,” West said.
In high school, after missing much of his freshman season due to injury, West scored 24 times for the Manatee Hurricanes in his sophomore year. West had what he calls “an off year” as a junior, but returned for his senior season determined to make amends.
“I just knew if I worked hard and went (directly) to the goal more, that I’d score a lot more goals and help the team to win, and that’s what I did,” West said. “It worked out for me that year.”
“Worked out” is something of an understatement. In just 31 games, West scored 54 goals, including 11 hat tricks, and contributed 25 assists. Not surprisingly, recognition followed: first team All-State, first team All-South, Florida Gatorade Player of the Year, NSCAA All-American and selection for the first annual McDonald’s All-American game in South Carolina.
For Manatee High head coach Rene Mirandilla, West’s ruthlessness in front of the goal separated him from other high school players.
“Anyone can shoot at the goal, but he has the knack for finishing. He has a nose for the goal, he seems to be everywhere,” Mirandilla said.
As his senior season progressed, Mirandilla watched West learn how to cope with the increased attention from opposing defenders his reputation earned him.
“Defenses double-teamed and triple-teamed him all the time,” Mirandilla said. “That’s what so amazing about him. You won’t see him until all of a sudden, you’ll see his foot sticking out and it’s in the net. That’s how good he is.”
West also received attention from college programs, but after attending a USF soccer camp in 2001, had already wowed then coach John Hackworth and committed to play for the Bulls.
“I think I played the best soccer I’ve ever played (at the camp),” West said. “Coach Hackworth came to my house, and we dealt out the scholarship. That tuned out all the other universities that were interested in me.”
Hackworth had, in fact, been tracking West for a number of years.
“The first time I saw him play, he was only a high school sophomore playing with his club team,” Hackworth said. “He was playing with guys that were juniors and seniors, but he was clearly the best player on the field.”
But before West ever donned a Bulls jersey, Hackworth had left to become an assistant coach for the national U-17 team. West, instead, found himself playing under new coach George Kiefer.
“I was unsure about his coaching abilities, but after this first year, I think he’s a wonderful coach,” West said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he knows what he’s doing to build the program here at USF.”
A goal in both of the Bulls’ preseason games secured West a starting spot that, with nine goals in his first seven outings, he made. The freshman quickly discovered, however, that unlike in high school soccer, the chance to make up for a missed opportunity does not always arrive at the collegiate level.
“I have some games in my head when I wonder what would have happened if I would have put that one away? Would we have been in the (NCAA) tournament?” West said.
The forward credits Kiefer with helping him play through this additional pressure.
“Soccer is a team sport, not an individual sport. I only do what I can for the team,” West said. “I put five game winners away this year, and that’s mostly been (Kiefer) stressing to me to keep playing, even though you missed those easy goals. It’s the overall end that matters.”
West’s impact in his debut season came as no surprise to Bulls’ assistant coach Jim Felix, who said West’s power and pace were tailor-made for a conference renowned for its physical style of soccer.
“We thought he was a perfect match for Conference USA. It’s a strong, physical conference, and he matches up well,” Felix said. “No one can push him off the ball. He’s good in the air, and mentally, he’s very tough.”
Looking back on his freshman year, West declared himself happy with the individual accolades he received, but said his satisfaction was tempered by the Bulls’ failure to progress past the first round of the C-USA tournament.
“I like accomplishing what I did with the first team All-Conference and the Freshman Player of the Year, but that really doesn’t mean anything when your team doesn’t make it to the conference final or the NCAA tournament,” West said.
Goal scorers invariably grab most of the attention, but, according to West’s former high school coach, the 19-year-old is more comfortable away from the spotlight.
“He’s a nice kid. He won’t strike you as a flashy player. He would rather see someone else get the attention,” Mirandilla said. “He’s very humble, but he gets the job done on the field.”
In a time when some outstanding college recruits trade off one institution against another, West’s level-headedness and loyalty were a refreshing change for Hackworth.
“He comes from a really good family. He’s not too crazy, even-keeled,” Hackworth said. “I started recruiting him very early, and I never had to battle for him. He said, ‘You’re showing that much faith in me, I’ll show some faith in you.’ He’s true to his words, and that speaks volumes for him.”
Long-term, the striker confesses that he has half an eye on Ralph Baker’s USF record of 54 career goals, but it is team success rather than individual success that he craves.
“Basically, I’m here to get to a Final Four. This school has never been to a Final Four. No one looks at USF and thinks that it’s one of the better teams in the nation,” West said.
Whatever ambitions he harbors, West’s love of the game and in particular, of scoring goals, remains undiminished. In the Bulls’ No.15 there still remains something of the 7-year-old who scored 13 goals in his debut.
“Scoring a goal is still the same for me. I love scoring, that’s always been a natural thing for me,” he said. “Even though I may just score one goal in a game now, it still brightens my day.”
Chris O’Donnell covers USF men’s soccer and can be reached at email@example.com