By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
When Lewis Hilton first got to see the Charlotte Independence in action in person, he had little idea that a few months later he would be beginning his professional career in Mike Jeffries’ squad.
“It was a bit of a drive; it’s four hours away, but I have a couple of friends and former teammates who play at Louisville – Ilija Ilic and Niall McCabe – so they actually played away at Charlotte, and I went up to watch,” Hilton said this week. “At that time I didn’t know Charlotte was going to be my future club, so fortunately I was able to watch the game and I was impressed with their style of play.”
A former standout at Division II power Young Harris and the PDL’s Ocala Stampede, Hilton is one of the new faces added by the Independence this offseason as the club looks to build on a successful first season in the USL. The English midfielder is currently getting set for training camp, which opens on February 22, and is looking forward to the chance to make his mark in the professional ranks.
“It’s extremely exciting,” Hilton said. “Soccer’s been my whole life, and it’s been my dream to play for a living, and thankfully I was able to get this opportunity sorted pretty quickly after I graduated last December. I’m just extremely excited, and ready to get stuck in and get into preseason and see what impact I can have with the team.”
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A native of Newquay, Hilton had a standout career at Young Harris, earning back-to-back NSCAA Division II All-America selections in the past two falls. He also starred for the Stampede, where he helped the club win the Southern Conference Championship in the PDL for the past two seasons.
His experience with Ocala proved key, as Hilton was able to prove himself against strong Division I talent on the field. One of his most memorable moments with Ocala came at the 2014 PDL Championship, where a brilliant long-range free kick saw the Stampede pull level in their semifinal against the Kitsap Pumas.
The Pumas would ultimately take the victory, but Hilton’s experience provided a mental boost as he pursued his professional goals.
“Obviously, in Division II, my school is extremely small. There’s just over 1,000 students attending it, and we might not have the facilities that the big D-I schools are able to have,” Hilton said. “It was another good experience for me to come into a team where there are players from these really well-known schools, and I was really excited for that challenge to go in and more than hold my own with these players. … I thrived off having that challenge, and it’s one I’m excited to have going into the USL, where there’ll be players with a lot more experience than me at this level, but I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m ready to try and make an impact and get myself into that starting 11 come March 26 against Louisville.”
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Hilton was also able to make strong connections through Stampede Coach Cheyne Roberts, himself a former professional for the Charlotte Eagles.
“Cheyne was a really good mentor for me, and he helped me a lot,” Hilton said. “[Independence GM] Tom Engstrom was the General Manager at [the Eagles], so he’s got a good relationship with Cheyne and he was able to talk with me when they showed some interest. It definitely helped with the contacts that Cheyne was able to help me with, and with the experiences I was able to gain in my two seasons at Ocala.”
Now comes the challenge of establishing himself with the Independence, and as if he needed more motivation, the USL schedule provided an added incentive for Hilton to have a strong preseason. Visiting Charlotte on the opening weekend of the season is Louisville, meaning should he earn a berth in the squad, he could be going up against his former teammates, Ilic and McCabe.
“It’s going to be a bit of a strange experience going up against two of my really good friends,” Hilton said. “We’ve had a couple of jokes about it already, and it was a bit of a strange one to see that would be my very first game, but hopefully it will be against my two good friends, and it’s added to the excitement of me going there and to my motivation to make sure I’m going to be playing a part in that game.”
After being in attendance the last time Charlotte hosted Louisville, Hilton will be looking to make an impact on the field this time around.