Willie Hunt makes most of chance with Rowdies

Willie Hunt, left, then playing for the Atlanta Silverbacks, battles for the ball against the Rowdies' Warren Ukah during a 2011 game.
Willie Hunt, left, then playing for the Atlanta Silverbacks, battles for the ball against the Rowdies' Warren Ukah during a 2011 game.
Published May 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A simple text message was all it took to throw his professional soccer career into serious doubt. But thrown a life preserver in Tampa Bay, Willie Hunt has been reborn with the Rowdies.

Hunt, a 26-year-old defender, played the past three seasons with the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks. Six months ago he was a part-time starter in Atlanta, helping the Silverbacks to the spring season title. And he likely would have started in the Soccer Bowl were it not for a hamstring pull the week before the game.

But after Atlanta declined to extend the contract of league coach of the year Brian Haynes — Hunt's third coach in three seasons there — after losing the Soccer Bowl, Hunt was unsure whether he would be let go as well.

In January, Hunt learned of his fate.

In a text message.

"It was the best year in Atlanta history, but when they announced they were letting go of the coach for some reason, my status was up in the air until they hired the new coach," said Hunt, who made 53 appearances with Atlanta and scored five goals, including two against the Rowdies. "You would think after three years with the club, they would call you."

Hunt was in contact with Rowdies general manager Perry Van Der Beck, who offered a tryout. The Rowdies were intrigued because of Hunt's versatility — he can play any position on the back line — and his performances against the team. Hunt was interested because Kyle Clinton, a teammate and three-year roommate at Francis Marion University, was on the squad.

Plus, it was an opportunity to continue playing professionally when it appeared that none would be available.

"He's not the biggest person, but he's very aggressive in his intent, playing himself to the ball and playing through people," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "He's one person that I have liked."

Hunt saw 175 minutes of action in three preseason matches, starting two. On April 4, the Rowdies signed the South Carolina native to a contract.

After being left off the dress list for the Rowdies' first three league matches, Hunt received his first start, at left back, in an exhibition against Orlando City.

Three days later, he started at right back in the Rowdies' first victory, a shutout at San Antonio. Last week he started again in the Rowdies' 1-1 draw at Ottawa.

"It's a roller coaster because first you've got to make the team, and then once you're on the roster, you've got to fight for a spot in the 18," Hunt said. "And then you're just looking for an opportunity to get on the field and prove yourself. You've got to be patient."

Aided by the presence of another familiar face — backup goalkeeper Cody Mizell, who was with Hunt in Atlanta last season and also competing for a roster spot this preseason in Tampa Bay — Hunt has fit in right away with the Rowdies, skyrocketing up the depth chart.

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"Willie came into preseason later than most of the other guys, so it took him a little while to get into the starting lineup," Mizell said.

"But he's done well. He feels comfortable, and he's gotten to know the players better. That's what's made it so easy for him to step onto the field and into the starting 11."

With four games remaining in the spring season, including tonight's match against the New York Cosmos at Al Lang Stadium, Hunt will play a big role in the Rowdies points chase.

And after a tumultuous offseason that began with a text, that's welcoming news for Hunt.