CONWAY — It wasn’t that long ago that Robby Joe Daniels was just another student on campus at Coastal Carolina, staying active while playing for the club soccer team whenever it could get a game together.
Which is why he says this is all so “surreal” these days.
Because now, well, now he’s one of the veteran leaders of a nationally-ranked Division I program as he looks to help the Chanticleers take the next step in their emergence into national relevance while continuing his own impressive ascent from sophomore walk-on to trusted senior.
“He’s one of the few guys who’s come in here to the program who has been a walk-on and actually made it through the program,” CCU assistant coach and former player Kyle Russell said. “Most guys fizzle out, so it’s a real testament to his hard work.”
Daniels, who says he was lightly recruited out of high school in Virginia with interest from some Division II and Division III schools, has become Coastal’s top reserve off the bench – when he isn’t starting – and has averaged 33.4 minutes a game for a Chants team ranked No. 19 in two national polls this week after opening the season tabbed as high as 10th.
As head coach Shaun Docking stood off to the side of the field before practice Tuesday talking about Daniels, he noted that the program has had some other walk-ons turn into productive players over the years. But the last example he can recall is Russell, who was actually recruited to campus as a non-scholarship addition initially. As far as true walk-ons making their mark, he adds, “It doesn’t happen all that often.”
“He just knows where to be at the right times,” Docking said of Daniels. “His positional play is excellent and just his leadership is excellent. He does such a terrific job with the other guys on the team.”
When Daniels arrived at Coastal and joined the club soccer team as a way of staying involved with the sport, the start-up squad was limited to playing pickup games on the intramural field. The next year the club team managed to line up some games with opposing schools, and all the while some of the players – including a few who had spent time on Docking’s varsity roster – started suggesting Daniels should try out for the Chants.
“The spring of my sophomore year, I just decided while I was still playing, I might as well just give it a shot because it was always a dream trying to play college soccer,” Daniels said.
He emailed Docking and was invited to come practice with the team, though there were no promises how long that opportunity would last. Every week, Docking would tell Daniels how things had gone to that point and then invite him to continue working out with the squad.
Soon enough, he was there to stay.
“I remember when he first came out here and everybody was like, ‘Here’s another guy that’s coming to tryout for the team. He won’t make it more than a week,’” Russell said. “And he stuck with it, and he busted his butt every single day and he just kept coming out. He made sure he was the first in fitness, and everything we asked him to do he did – from picking up the cones to picking up water bottles and he just earned his spot. He earned it. He 100 percent earned it.”
And Daniels has continued to earn his place on the field with his steadying presence. He ended up starting nine games his first season with the program and drew six starts while notching three goals and an assist over 20 total games last season as the Chants reached the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Coastal is off to a 2-1-1 start so far and has its sights set on matching if not exceeding what it accomplished last year. And on a roster full of talented players recruited from around the world, the walk-on from Rockville, Va., will no doubt be a key cog in that pursuit.
“It’s kind of surreal thinking about it,” Daniels said. “... It’s a very exciting experience because I never really thought I’d be in this position.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.