Taking talents to next level

Croatan senior Garrett Bridgewater, seated center, will take his athletic and academic talents to Wingate University. Others in the photo are: seated, Bridgewater’s parents, Kris and Bruce; standing, left to right, Croatan co-athletic director Mike Grice, assistant principal Kay Zimarino, soccer coach Paul Slater and assistant principal Sarah Weinhold. (J.J. Smith photo)

OCEAN — Garrett Bridgewater had the opportunity to play Division I soccer, but in a sign of wisdom beyond his years ultimately chose to go where he felt most comfortable.

The Croatan senior forward will take his considerable talent and work ethic to Division II Wingate, which has offered him an athletic and academic grant.

“I just made up my mind a couple of weeks ago,” Bridgewater said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it, because obviously this is a huge decision. This is where I’m going to spend the next four years of my life.”

Bridgewater was looking at several of D-I and D-II schools. He attended the Wingate soccer camp last summer and visited the campus in December and again earlier this year.

“I started narrowing down which schools I seriously wanted to consider. I was trying to keep an open mind, and they were always there,” he said. “I thought about it a lot, and in my heart and in my gut, I knew this was where I wanted to go. And I knew it was where I would receive the best combination of education and athletics.”

Wingate, ranked as the eighth best college value in the South by U.S. News & World Report, serves more than 3,000 students on three campuses in Wingate, Charlotte and Hendersonville. Founded in 1896, the private university boasts a 14-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

The Bulldogs field one of the best Division II athletic programs in the South. The university has won the South Atlantic Conference Echols Athletic Excellence Award for the past seven years.

Wingate is first among NCAA Division II private colleges in producing Academic All-Americans in the 2000’s with 59 selections. Among North Carolina’s colleges and universities, Wingate’s 59 Academic All-America honorees are number one during this millennium. Wingate’s 68 lifetime Academic All-America picks are tops among all SAC schools.

“He wavered between Division I and Division II, and I think he ultimately decided Wingate was the best fit,” Croatan coach Paul Slater said. “He can play now, not sit and be the 25th guy on the roster. He can come in and play right away and contribute. I think he will play a lot as a freshman, and he will grow as a player because he will be on the field. It felt like family to him there, and they play a high level of soccer.”

The Bulldogs compiled an 11-5-1 overall record and a 7-2-1 mark in the South Atlantic Conference this season to claim second place in the regular season standings. They finished the regular season ranked No. 23 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Division II Top 25 Poll.

Coach Gary Hamill led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Division II Southeast Regional title in the history of the program in 2012. Wingate defeated Montevallo, Lander and Flagler to advance to the first Elite Eight in school history before losing to eventual national champion Lynn from Florida.

Hamill, the coach with the most wins in the history of men’s soccer at Wingate, was named the Region Coach of the Year.

In 21 years, Hamill has compiled an overall record of 248-133-21 with the Bulldogs.

In 2010, he led his squad to the South Atlantic Conference regular season title after finishing as the runner up the previous year.

“The coaching staff is great,” Bridgewater said. “The camaraderie among the teammates is great. I really enjoyed the campus and hanging out with the guys on the team. And the facilities are very nice. I’m excited for next year.”

Bridgewater made an indelible mark on Croatan in his two years on the varsity.

He led the squad in goals, assists and points in both his junior and senior seasons. He scored seven goals and registered four assists for 18 points as a junior and exploded for 19 goals, eight assists and 46 points this past season.

His 19 goals were three times more than any other Cougar player and his 46 points doubled the next highest player.

Bridgewater’s fantastic season has paid of richly with his selection to two all-star games. He has been named to the N.C. Coaches Association East-West All-Star Game that will take place on July 22 at the UNC-Greensboro Soccer Stadium. He has also been asked to participate in the Clash of the Carolinas that pits the S.C. High School Soccer Coaches Association team versus the N.C. Soccer Coaches Association team. The game will take place on July 12 at Blackbaud Stadium in Daniel Island, S.C.

“I was ecstatic when I heard I made those teams,” Bridgewater said. “It’s nice to be recognized. I’m going to have a busy summer.”

Slater credits Bridgewater’s work ethic as much as his talent for both his production in high school and his potential in college.

“He will be successful at Wingate because he is such a hard worker,” Slater said. “He works harder than anybody I’ve ever coached here at Croatan. And with his work ethic and his talent, it’s a nice marriage that will help him compete at that level.  A lot of talented players don’t work hard, but he does. He has that drive, and that helped us be successful this year.”

Bridgewater helped Croatan overcome a disastrous 2012 campaign that saw the club finish 3-17-3 overall and 2-10 in the East Central Conference (ECC). The squad started the season winless in its first nine matches. It finished in the same vein, winning just one of its last 10.

Normally one of the better teams in the ECC – Croatan won a combined 19 games the previous two years – the Cougars suffered through one of their toughest seasons in the program’s history. However, the team wasn’t completely overmatched, losing seven of the 17 matches by two goals or less.

It built on that potential this past season, advancing to the second round of the 2A state playoffs with a 15-6 mark. Croatan finished as the runner-up in the ECC with a 8-2 record.

“My junior year really opened my eyes,” Bridgewater said. “You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t play as a team, you aren’t going to be successful. We didn’t play well together and didn’t have a strong desire to win games. This past year, we were willing to do whatever it took to win. Our attitudes were better, and that made all the difference.”

Bridgewater, who sports a 3.4 GPA, hopes to major in sports administration with a pre-law minor.

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