Loyola's soccer team knew it had something special in Phil Bannister's first game.
With the game against Princeton tied at 1 late in the second half, Bannister raced down the field, received a pass, crossed up his man with a deft move and beat the goalkeeper. Fans went crazy, teammates mobbed him and the freshman forward from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, showed not so much as a hint of emotion.
"Afterwards, I couldn't even explain it," he said. "I just ran over to the bench and just got lost in it."
Not a bad start to your college career - a game-winning shot, an assist on the first goal and a big win for the Greyhounds.
Ten goals - including six game-winners - later and Bannister, the top freshman goal scorer in the country, has the Greyhounds on the brink of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Loyola, 15-3 and winner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title, is favored to capture the MAAC tournament in Orlando, Fla., this week.
Danny Olsen, his coach at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay, England, first saw Bannister play on a junior team at 14. Olsen watched this diminutive, bony teen go toe-to-toe with a pair of older, bigger defenders. After Bannister beat the first man, then eluded the second defender, he launched himself into the box and did his best David Beckham impersonation, bending a kick into the top left corner of the goal.
"He pulled a Houdini on them," Olsen said. "What stood out was his natural ability. The first touch was fantastic; it was unbelievable at such a young age."
Five years later, Loyola is reaping the benefits.
"When you get into the goal-scoring frame of mind, even when you close your eyes, you have an idea of where the goal is and where the keeper is all the time," said Loyola coach Mark Mettrick, a native of Newcastle, England. Mettrick was a feared goal scorer for powerhouse Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and later helped lead the Blast to two Major Indoor Soccer League championship games.
"Even when [Bannister] puts his head down, he still has that vision of where the goal is. We're watching on film, and he puts it exactly where it needs to be without even thinking about it."
Some players find that special scoring ability as soon as they hit puberty, and in England those prospects are identified more quickly than a young 6-foot-9 basketball player in the United States. The club teams in Northern Britain typically find these players and begin grooming them intensively.
Bannister was not one of these players. Because of his slight build, he was never considered among his team's best players. Nevertheless, Bannister remained attached to the game, learning it from his father, Christopher, who played for a lower-level club team in England.
Christopher exposed his son to different teams and different styles of play. By the time Bannister entered Monkseaton, a school in northeast England, soccer was all he knew.
Monkseaton is known for its soccer prowess, and it regularly churns out players ready for college. Monkseaton alumni are playing at Siena and Fairfield. Eddie Dines, Bannister's teammate at Monkseaton, is now his Loyola teammate. Despite Monkseaton's reputation and Bannister's skills, the 5-foot-10 forward didn't get noticed until his junior year.
Mettrick first watched Bannister play while scouting another player. Struck by what he saw but hesitant to commit too early, Mettrick didn't contact Bannister at the time.
While other U.S. schools scoured club teams for talent, Mettrick kept his eye on the 150-pound forward. He saw a player who played with a chip on his shoulder and reminded him a bit of himself.
"Wallsend, which is the town Phil lived in, is a rough, tough area, and you're born into football," Olsen said. "You have one of three jobs coming out of there: You're either a shipbuilder, a boxer, or a footballer."
After Mettrick watched Bannister play once more at Monkseaton, he offered a scholarship. The only question was, would Bannister accept?
As it turns out, Mettrick had another "in" with the Bannisters besides his English background. Bannister's mother, Sheila, has a sister, Edna, in New Jersey. When it came time for Edna's daughter to choose a college, Loyola was at the top of the list because of academics. Edna phoned Sheila about Loyola. Sheila was hooked, and so was Phil. Auntie Edna hasn't missed one of Bannister's games.
Bannister became a bona fide star in his senior year, exploding for 24 goals and breaking numerous Monkseaton scoring records. He joined the England U-18 Schoolboys team, and excelled at that level, too, along with Dines. Bannister set a record with six goals in seven games. But, when rival colleges came calling, Bannister stayed loyal to Mettrick and Loyola.
As a starter at Loyola from the outset, Bannister has done little to disappoint. He broke his hand in an early-season game and strained his hamstring in practice, but he has remained one of the team's top scorers. He and Jamie Darvill, from London, form perhaps the best one-two scoring punch in the MAAC.
Bannister is the top freshman scorer in the country with 26 points, but that's not what pleases him most.
"It's a good feeling, but I just take it as it comes," Bannister said. "Until last year, when I started to get noticed when I started to break all the records, I was a complementary player. If I didn't score again, but helped the team get to the NCAA tournament, that would be fine by me."