He’s far from a prototypical soccer goalkeeper, at least in terms of experience.
Until this season, Hockinson senior Hale Prior hadn’t even played the sport since middle school.
As a linebacker, safety and receiver at Hockinson, soon-to-be college football player at Stetson University in central Florida, he’s better known for his talents on the gridiron.
But the Hockinson boys soccer team needed a goalkeeper and Prior, after some convincing, embraced the role in his final high school season.
“I promised some of them at the beginning of the year I’d play,” Prior said of his Hockinson teammates, several of whom played together on the Hawks’ football team. “I’m really glad I did. Getting to know these guys a lot better has been awesome.”
Hockinson (6-5) has enjoyed a much-improved season by already tripling its win total from 2021. Newcomers like Prior bolstered a program that has struggled with participation numbers and joined a group committed to improving on a 2-8 season.
Last year, the Hawks had just 14 players in their entire program, six less than their current roster. They finished multiple games with just 10 players on the field.
Of those 14, none were goalkeepers, so Jackson McNair, a defender, stepped into the position. By the end of the season, head coach Tony Ayala said morale was low for McNair and a team often outmatched on defense against 2A Greater St. Helens league opponents.
“He was our goalie last year through thick and thin, and it had to be the most challenging position because we were getting slaughtered, honestly, every game,” Ayala said. “We were getting shot after shot after shot.”
Ayala said he told McNair after the season he wanted him to come back, but he wasn’t obligated to continue playing goalie. The Hawks were back to square one in the net. That’s where Prior’s name came up.
In conversations with team captain Scott Curtis, Ayala kept hearing of a 6-foot-1 football player who was interested in joining the team.
Admittedly, Ayala said he wasn’t sure if Prior would go through with it, but he was introduced to the senior before the season and got the impression he was committed to playing.
“He’s the most humble, polite kid you’ll ever meet. He was like, ‘Yes sir, of course sir, I’ll do whatever it takes,’ ” Ayala said.
“For us, having a kid that wanted to commit to the position was huge.”
In the preseason, Prior showed potential with a presence in the box, the head coach noticed, and has continued refining his game with assistant coach Josh Nichols.
Prior said his experience playing safety has also translated to being the last line of defense on the soccer pitch.
“To an extent I’m just playing safety out there, not letting the ball get past me, tracking and reading, so a lot of those skills carried over,” Prior said. “I know my technique sometimes scares them every once in a while, not getting on the ground or getting on top of stuff all the way … they’ve been super helpful giving me pointers.”
A turning point for Prior came last week in a penalty shootout win over Washougal, days after Hockinson suffered a tough 2-1 loss on an overtime golden goal. Against Washougal, Prior recorded four saves in regulation, then stopped two Washougal PK attempts, including the final one, to seal a 6-5 win. Remarkably, it was his first ever PK shootout as a goalie.
Another part of Prior’s presence in the net is his voice. The position requires assertive communication to organize and call out everything happening in front of keepers, which Prior does. But he also keeps a constant banter going with his back line of Teagan Cabebe, Tristan Maldonado, Trevor Holmes and Curtis, occasionally the other team, or sometimes, no one in particular.
Prior keeps the atmosphere light when Hockinson needs it most.
“He’s just a jokester, he keeps the morale up and he doesn’t get too down on himself,” Ayala said.
Added Prior: “I think they all get annoyed with that sometimes, me talking the whole time, but I’m trying to have fun back there. Sometimes I stand back there for a little while. I got to keep myself entertained. But yeah, I try to talk the whole time, try to make them laugh most of the time. I try to make my back line laugh, (but) they usually ignore me.”
Months from now, Prior will be playing Division I college football in DeLand, Fla., “a dream come true,” he said.
Playing for Hockinson’s boys soccer team is somewhat of a side venture, but he’s relished the experience of being part of a program that is gaining momentum.
“Last year was tough for them and how many kids came back from last year, I thought, was impressive after a season like that,” Prior said. “It showed that they wanted to get better and they cared. Our girls soccer team has been really successful for a while. We’re trying to build off that and make Hockinson boys soccer, make a name for ourselves, because we’ve had a lot of success in other sports.”