Nick Mele didn't take the conventional route in his soccer career, but things worked out anyway for the former Delran goalie who just concluded a decorated career at Montclair State.
Youngsters today play club soccer almost from the time they walk to get that extra edge. That was not the case with Mele.
It's hard to believe there is a college player in the country who didn't play club soccer, let alone one who lost just four games in three seasons as a starter.
"I was really interested in baseball, and then I hurt my arm," said Mele, recently named an all-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America for the second consecutive year. "Soccer was an afterthought, but then we had success at Delran by winning a state championship."
That was in 2003, when Delran and Harrison played to a 1-1 tie to share the Group 2 state crown. Mele showed he belonged on the big stage despite his relative lack of experience.
"He was facing a shooting gallery that day and he made some unbelievable saves," Delran coach Mike Otto recalled. "I think that is when he realized he could play at a top level."
Mele helped Delran win the Group 2 title again his senior year, beating Harrison, 2-1, in the final.
Before his senior year, Mele attended a soccer camp at Rutgers, where he received advice from Scarlet Knights coach Bob Reasso - a former coach at Delran. Admittedly, it was advice that was difficult to digest.
"He told me that I probably didn't have what it takes to play Division I soccer, but that I would be a great player in Division III," Mele said. "It kind of made me mad, but it also motivated me."
Instead of being stubborn and chasing a Division I dream, Mele attended Montclair State - and became a great Division III player.
After serving as a backup his first year, Mele earned the starting job in goal as a sophomore. During his three years, he produced a 56-4-2 record and Montclair State earned an NCAA tournament berth each season. The Red Hawks punched their NCAA ticket the last three seasons by capturing three consecutive New Jersey Athletic Conference tournament titles.
This past season, Mele was named the NJAC goalkeeper of the year with a minuscule 0.35 goals-against average, 21 wins and 11 shutouts.
Now it's easy to look back and wonder how much he would have accomplished had he played club soccer.
"Nick wasn't anything special to begin with because he didn't play club soccer," Otto said. "But he was a phenomenal athlete, and his determination made him what he is today."
The only positive about not playing club soccer was that Mele wasn't burned out by the game. Everything, even now, seems so fresh. And Mele still holds onto a dream that he could be stopping shots in the future.
That's why he will head to the Pro Soccer Combine Jan. 6-8 just outside Orlando, Fla.
Several leagues, including Major League Soccer, will send scouts. Participants are charged a fee to be evaluated, but Mele is willing to literally pay the price to be seen.
"It is another chance of exposure," Mele said. "I'm not expecting much, but I don't want to go later in life feeling I made a mistake by not doing this and seeing what happens."
In the spring, Mele will graduate as a criminal justice major after interning with the state police. He will have some options but hopes that soccer can be one of them.