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12/14/2022 09:30 AM

O’Brien Finding His Stride as First Team All-Conference Player

Niall O’Brien made a major impact on the ECSU men’s soccer team in his first season, earning First Team All-Little East Conference honors. Photo courtesy of Bob Molta

If one thing is obvious about Niall O’Brien, it’s that he knows how to make a good first impression. This quality has suited Niall well in a variety of ways. In fact, it’s the reason why he’s in the position he’s currently in.

One season into his college soccer career at Eastern Connecticut State University, the Guilford product is already a distinguished name both within the Little East Conference and the walls he calls his own.

“I knew that I could come in and make a difference,” Niall says. “Whether it was goals or assists, it didn’t matter.”

How much of a difference? Well, consider this: Niall was one of only two freshmen (joining Filipe Dutra of WestConn) this season to gain First Team All-Conference recognition. Niall, who scored six goals and two assists, across 19 matches, was surprised but humbled to receive such honors.

“I really didn’t think about it that much,” Niall says. “I thought I had a good season and maybe I’d get rewarded. But I definitely didn’t think First Team All-Conference.”

It’s something of a rare feat. He’s only the third freshman first-team selection under longtime Eastern Connecticut State Head Coach Greg DeVito, following goalkeeper Greg Walton in 2013 and forward Patrick Agyemang in 2018.

Niall was a model of versatility for the Warriors this season. He played admirably at numerous positions, including center back and midfield, and was second on the team in goals scored.

That he was able to adjust so seamlessly to playing college soccer and being involved in multiple positions doesn’t surprise DeVito, who noticed Niall’s potential both as an athlete and person throughout the recruiting process. He called Niall a “character guy,” a trait that was echoed to him by Niall’s former coaches at Guilford High School and Woodstock Academy.

“Usually along with a good person,” DeVito says, “comes a hard-working individual. He’s an honest kid who puts in an honest effort. … If they have that skill set where they want to work hard, a lot of kids can play, but are they going to come here to want to get better? A lot of kids come to college and they’re like, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’”

What also impressed DeVito was how engaged Niall was during his recruiting visit. He remembers that Niall asked a lot of questions and didn’t seem distracted by things such as his phone.

“His personality is very outgoing,” DeVito says. “He’s able to have a conversation with you, which is not normal in today’s person. He’s engaged, which I love about him. He takes on leadership roles without being asked. He’s kind of a natural about it.”

Niall, who had been recruited by some Division I schools and several others at Division III, felt at ease on the Willimantic campus.

“Ultimately, I met with Coach DeVito, and he made me feel the most welcomed,” Niall says. “He said he wanted me to be a big part of this team. That right there, other coaches were like, ‘We want you to be a part of our program.’ Ultimately, I was looking for the place I could picture myself the most and make it feel like a second home.”

Indeed, that’s what it has become for Niall: a second home. ECSU’s season ended on Nov. 3 in a double-overtime loss to UMass Boston in the semifinals of the Little East Conference playoffs. Niall has kept himself busy since then, going to the gym, studying for finals and, of course, watching the World Cup.

Next season isn’t far from Niall’s mind. He already knows what to expect, having played nearly two-dozen matches at the Division III level, so in theory the adjustment should be even easier this time around. While a bigger role awaits, Niall isn’t taking anything for granted. It’s not how he’s wired.

“It’s a very physical style of soccer,” Niall says of the biggest difference between high school and Division III soccer. “It’s more getting your body prepared for big hits, hard tackles. In our conference, referees aren’t going to give you a foul all the time. You’ve got to keep a cool head. As the season goes on and the more and more games you play, the more you get beaten up.”

A four-year starter at Guilford High, Niall won a Southern Connecticut Conference title his junior year and twice lost in the semifinals of the state tournament. He then spent six months as a post-graduate at Woodstock Academy, catching up on valuable time he lost training while most of Connecticut was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was during that stop that he committed to play for DeVito.

“We got fortunate,” DeVito says of finding Niall. “We saw a good guy.”

Renowned for his character, Niall has taken an interest in psychology. He’s noticed the stigma against athletes speaking out about their mental health and wants to help in some way. Niall said he’s had teammates come to him before in moments of frustration about playing time. He believes it’s important that he’s always approachable and willing to lend a hand.

“That’s something I want to do on a bigger scale,” says Niall, who last month changed his major from business administration to psychology. “There’s a big stigma out there about athletes speaking out if they’re struggling. I know there’s more athletes out there that haven’t been able to talk to someone. I always had it in my mind, but I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to pursue it.”