CCU soccer star Bennett fulfilling a promise and making the most of his return

Coastal Carolina soccer standout Ashton Bennett says that when he was a young kid growing up in Jamaica, living with his mother and three siblings, well, he was a bit of a troublemaker at times. So his grandmother often called him over to her house nearby to have him spend some time there instead.

Eventually, he’d move in with his grandparents while his siblings stayed behind, and he and his grandmother would talk about the future and what lay ahead for the budding soccer star – on and off the field.

“No one ever graduated [college] in my family before. I told her, ‘I’m going to be the first one,’” Bennett said, telling the story before practice Thursday. “She said, ‘Well, follow you’re dreams. I know you love football,’ which we call it in Jamaica. She said, ‘So follow your dreams and kick football,’ as the old people say, ‘and make sure you get an education first.’ I told her, ‘I’m going to make sure that’s the first priority, that I get an education and soccer comes after.’ I made a promise to her.”

His grandmother passed away in 2003, but that promise remained and it’s something he thought a lot about last winter.

It’s a big reason why he’s still here, playing for the Chanticleers rather than in some Major League Soccer stadium somewhere. And it’s also a big reason why the Chants are where they are – ranked as high as No. 8 in the country and in the midst of what could go down as the most successful season in program history.

After leading the NCAA in goals last year with 23 and leading Coastal to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, Bennett could have declared himself eligible for the MLS SuperDraft last January – and he thought about it.

“It took me over the Christmas break,” Bennett said of that decision. “I was talking constantly with my dad and some of my aunts ... because I wanted to hear their point of view, and all of them said the same thing – I should get an education, make sure I get a degree. So that’s basically a big part of why I decided to come back to school. I heard I was predicted to be in the top-10, first-round pick. But at the same time, I wanted to stick to my word and that’s to get my degree.”

More and more, that decision looks like it could pay big dividends both for the Chants’ and their offensive leader.

The scoring is down a bit as he’s faced heightened attention from opposing defenders this season, but Bennett’s 13 goals still rank tied for the eighth-most among all Division I players entering the week and the word is he’s being looked at as a top-of-the-draft consideration. More pertinently, he’s led the Chants to a 15-1-2 record so far and the highest national ranking in program history, while helping the team on a pace to challenge the program record of 20 wins set in 2003.

With a 33-5-2 record over the last two seasons and one of the nation’s premier offensive players, the Chants are officially nationally-relevant these days. And that ties in to another promise Bennett made to himself, during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

“Omar Cummings used to play there – he plays for Jamaica and the Colorado Rapids,” Bennett said. “He went there for a visit, and I was there, and he was talking to me, [saying] ‘Everywhere you go, just make sure you leave a mark there.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Do something that stands out for you.’ And I try to tell myself I’m going to make history [everywhere] I go. I went to Cincinnati State and I left a mark, and my aim is to leave a mark here when I leave too.”

A national identity

Sitting in his office last week talking about his hopes to upgrade the school’s soccer facilities in the foreseeable future, CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek discussed the struggle for Football Championship Subdivision-level schools like Coastal to “expand the identity” of their athletic programs across the country, to build up the brand that is Chanticleer athletics into something recognizable beyond the immediate area and region.

He talked about the impact of the Coastal baseball program’s rise the last decade-plus and that of former CCU golf standout Dustin Johnson emerging into one of the world’s top players, but mostly he mentioned the parallels he sees these days between what coach Gary Gilmore did with Coastal baseball and what coach Shaun Docking and company are in the midst of creating with the soccer program.

“When I arrived here on this campus, we had a top-10 baseball program and our head coach was [working] in a trailer,” Yurachek said. “The baseball stadium was sufficient but not evident of who we compete with nationally, and I think what coach Gilmore did with the baseball program based on the facilities and the office environment, based on who he was competing for recruits against and competing against in the top-10, it’s very challenging.

“And I think you look at the same thing with coach Docking. He gets after it, he has that same mentality that Gary has, that blue-collar mentality that I’m going to work hard, I’m going to outwork people and I’m going to find the kids and the pieces to the puzzle that create a team that can achieve great success.”

Bennett has no doubt been an especially key piece to that puzzle.

The Chants are 21-1 over the last two seasons in games in which he scores a goal with the lone loss coming in a 3-2 defeat to top-ranked North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. And more often than not, Bennett finds a way to get the ball in the net.

He’s scored nine goals over the last eight games as Coastal is now riding a 12-game winning streak and thinking realistically about the potential for a first-round NCAA bye this year if it can keep this run going through the end of the conference tournament.

Other players have emerged for the Chants as well – sophomore Ricky Garbanzo has 10 goals and five assists while having a breakout season of his own – but it would be hard to imagine all this happening without the 5-foot-9 senior from Clarendon, Jamaica.

“Having him back for this year, him deciding to come back for this season is really a key aspect for this team just because he makes other players around him play so much better,” senior teammate Robby Joe Daniels said. “He just raises the level for everybody on the field whenever he’s out there with us and even in practice. ... It’s been a blessing for us to have him back for this year.”

As for that decision last winter, Docking says he thought the odds were 50-50 on whether Bennett stayed or left – but he thinks the player make the right choice.

“He had a lot of good opportunities, and he had people that we’re talking to him and advisors close to him saying he maybe should leave and try and turn pro,” Docking said. “I think there was just a lot of forwards coming out last year, and he may have got lost in the shuffle a little bit. He was a junior, and I still think he felt he had a lot more to work on in his game. And that’s what we’ve been doing. He has been doing that. But I think he’s a more complete soccer player now than he was at this point last year.”

For that matter, he’s had to be.

All eyes on Bennett

After that breakout junior season and being named to the watch list for the Hermann Trophy – college soccer’s top individual honor – Bennett has had the full attention of every team on the Chants’ schedule this year.

He recalls realizing that the second game of the season at Charlotte, which remains Coastal’s only loss so far. He knew then that it was going to be a different kind of challenge this time.

“The moment I get [the ball], like three or four guys come at me and I have to release it real quick,” he said. “That game kind of set the mark of what to expect.”

That reminds him of yet another piece of wisdom he’s picked up along the way.

“A quote that my coach in high school always told me was, ‘The easiest thing is to get on top, but the hardest thing is to maintain it,’” Bennett said. “And I think I came under a lot more pressure than I expected. ... Knowing that teams and coaches know me now, it’s a lot more thought I have to put into thinking on the field. If I used to think 70 percent, now I’m going to have to start thinking like 100, maybe 110 [percent of the time] because everything started happening so fast. I think that’s one of the things I learned when I came back – it takes a lot more work to maintain what you’ve done.”

He’s found a way, though. Boosted by his recent scoring surge, he now ranks seventh on the program’s all-time scoring list in just two seasons with 36 goals in 40 career games and needs three more to move into fifth place.

And the buzz about his MLS draft stock is only on the rise.

“This year, if he can still get another 5-6 goals, he’s got a shot at being the No. 1 draft pick. He really does,” Docking said before practice late last week. “Toronto has got the first pick, and they called us two days ago and they’re coming to watch him. ... They’re going to have a good look at him and potentially draft him as the No. 1 draft pick.”

Of course, Bennett followed those comments up with two more goals last Saturday in the Chants’ 4-1 at Radford against a Highlanders team previously unbeaten in conference play. With that, Coastal clinched its second straight Big South regular-season championship and continued its ascent up the national polls. The team’s No. 8 ranking comes from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, while it is slotted ninth in three other recognized polls, and if the Chants can win their regular-season finale Friday night against High Point and roll through the Big South tournament they could potentially be in line for that first-round bye and a favorable NCAA seed.

As for Bennett, he said he hasn’t taken any time meanwhile, to look ahead to the 2013 MLS SuperDraft or what his future holds in that regard, but especially with Coastal in position to potentially set a new standard this season and make program history, well, he’s had no regrets about putting his professional career on hold an extra year.

“I’m a religious person, and I believe that what is to be will be,” Bennett said. “I believe God has a plan for me and every decision I make is a part of it – me coming back here and not going pro and all the decisions I’ve been making now recently. Last year at this time, I would probably be on 19 or so goals already, but I can’t think about that. ... My focus is to make sure we do well as a team because I’m a captain and I’m trying to motivate the players. We’re trying to go far -- it’s not just a one-man thing.”