In the 87th minute of a tie game at Virtue Field, the University of Vermont kept pressing forward in search of a game-winner. A throw-in from the right touch line went to the back post and caromed off the foot of senior forward Justin Freitas, then off the chest of a defender, and finally looped into the corner of the net.
It was the sixth goal of the season for Freitas, and his second in three games. Although it won’t go down as one of his prettiest strikes, it lifted the Catamounts to an America East Conference victory and kept the team’s momentum building for the closing stretch of the regular season, as UVM goes in search of a league title and an NCAA tournament berth.
Freitas also assisted on the equalizing goal against Hartford and his three-point game earned him Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors from the conference. It was the second time that the North Attleboro grad had received a weekly award this season.
“I felt like I started off pretty hot, worked hard over the summer, but then of course it’s not easy,” said Freitas this week in a phone call during the team’s trip from Burlington to Albany (N.Y.). “There are ups and downs in the season. I started getting sick and injured, but I feel good again heading to the end of the season.”
Although UVM lost to the University of Albany on Friday night, the Catamounts (9-5-0, 2-2-0) are just a win away from matching last season’s win total with four games remaining in the regular season.
“We’re excited to have a good start,” said Freitas. “We had a couple games that we were close and got unlucky and could’ve done a little better, but all is good so far.”
The senior forward is coming off a season in which he was named to the America East All-Conference Second Team and finished second in the conference in goals (eight) and points (19). He already has 18 points this season on six goals and six assists. He is currently third in the league in points and goals and second in assists.
He said, “We’re always reaching for the stars. I think we have the talent to compete for a national title. Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into that and we have to take it game by game…We dropped a couple games that we didn’t think we should’ve and we want to finish off the season winning as much as possible.”
It has been a long and winding journey for Freitas, taking him from youth soccer in North Attleboro to high school, Bayside United FC, the New England Revolution Academy, Dean College, and finally to UVM, where he is fulfilling his dream of playing Div. I soccer. He is an example of how the path to collegiate athletics is different for every player.
“I think everyone has to find their own individual path and keep grinding and face whatever comes to you,” he explained.
Freitas played one year with the Rocketeers. At the time, he was only about 5 feet tall but jumped into North’s rotation and showed the potential that caught the eye of the Revolution academy. While it was only a year of Hock soccer, he learned how to match up against physical players and match the speed of the game.
It was difficult, but after his freshman year Freitas decided to join the Revs academy full-time. “I knew that if I wanted to play at the next level, even though high school is fun and everything, I needed to stay focused and play for the Revs,” he explained. He credits the Revs for taking his game to the next level, but there is a part of him that still wishes he could have suited up for North as well. Freitas noted that he even tried to play for the Rocketeers after academy play ended during his senior season.
“It was tough because it’s always good to play for your high school, to be around your friends, but I think it was a mature decision,” he reflected. “Looking back at it, I developed a lot with the Revs and I have to give them a lot of credit, but at the same time I wish I had some of those high school moments, accolades, and stuff.”
“But overall it’s worked out pretty well. I can’t complain.”
There were plenty of offers coming out of high school, including from Div. I schools such as UMass Lowell and Bryant, but there were questions about how much Freitas, who had grown to 5-foot-10, could produce in college. During a visit to Southern New Hampshire, which was coming off a national title in 2013, Freitas spoke with Ruben Resendes, a coach at the Revs academy and family friend who became an important advisor over the next several years.
Resendes was taking over the program at Dean College and he convinced Freitas that he could help him become a Div. I-caliber player. It isn’t often that a player turns down offers from Div. I schools to play for a community college program, but Freitas was an instant star on the Franklin campus, scoring 25 goals his first year as Dean went 17-2 and played in the USCAA National Tournament.
Once again, a number of schools expressed interest in Freitas, but the second team All-American wanted to stay with his teammates (eight of which would end up going to Div. I programs) and compete for an elusive national title. He said, “I had interest from all over New England…and they wanted me to come right away in the spring and I just didn’t know if I was ready to make that transition.”
He had another All-American season with Dean, leading the Bulldogs to a spot in the national semifinals where they lost 2-1 to Florida National University. “It was a tough way to go down, but we played really well,” Freitas said. That Florida National team had a few international players with ties to professional leagues. Freitas joked that the Bulldogs looked up the keeper and saw that he was worth $150,000 on the transfer market.
Regardless of how it ended, Freitas was grateful for the two years he spent at Dean. “Dean was one of my favorite places in the world,” he said. “I met a lot of good friends there, I was always happy, we had played at a really high level.”
He verbally-committed to UMass Lowell, but Resendes and several of his Dean teammates, including UVM’s leading scorer Geo Alves, were heading to Vermont, so Freitas decided to switch and join them in Burlington.
“I consider them my brothers,” he explained. “We live together and we’re really close. We did everything together at Dean for two years, It’s been really nice to have them every step of the way through this journey.”
For Freitas, happiness, not just soccer, was an important part of the recruiting process. He wanted to find a place where he felt comfortable. “A lot of kids who commit to big schools right out of high school can struggle,” he said. “You have to be realistic with yourself and the big thing is to talk to the coaches and see how they see you developing, the role you’re going to have on the team. You have to find the place that works best for you.
It is advice that he shared with his younger brother Tyler, who graduated from North Attleboro last year but never played in high school because he was part of the Revs academy and U.S. national team pool from a young age. Tyler is taking a year off but just last week announced his commitment to UVM for next season.
“Having gone through the [recruiting] process myself, my parents knew what to expect, what kind of financial packets would be available, what schools to look at,” Freitas said. “It was good for my brother to see what I went through and learn from it.”
As his college career heads into the final stretch, Freitas reflected on just how far he has come. The many twists and turns his career took to get him to this point have given him a better appreciation of the opportunities he has in front of him. He wants to go pro, but he also wants to close out his college career by getting the Catamounts into the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve just got to keep working to make the team better every day,” Freitas said, “and then at the end of the season take a look at what my options are.
“It’s nice to see my dreams coming closer and closer to reality. It’s something special.”