LEXINGTON -- THE OCTOBER SUNLIGHT CREPT through slightly overcast skies; the way it hit the water tower by the fields said it was about 5 o’clock; the perfect time for a game of soccer.
Two people are on the field. One, a young girl with long blond hair and a look in her eyes that says passion. Caroline Beaty, 11, is learning how to play goalie.
Her teacher is Hunter Gilstrap. His puffy white goalie gloves are so disproportionate to his wrists that at 6-foot-3, he looks like one of the Mario Bros.
“Learning from the best,” you say to Beaty, who smiles softly, a ball resting under her arm in preparation for a game later that night. You introduce yourself to Gilstrap and go for a handshake.
Never miss a local story.
“I just spit in these (gloves),” he explains with a smile. A fist bump will suffice.
The lesson resumes. Gilstrap is systematic in his directions, explaining, showing examples, and having Caroline execute drills, critiquing her as necessary.
“Whenever I do something wrong, he won’t say negative things. He’ll say positive things,” says Beaty, who met Gilstrap at a camp in late August and started taking private lessons soon after. “He’s taught me to be more confident in myself, which makes me more confident in going to the ball.”
He was that age, once.
Flashback to 1994; 11 year-old Hunter Gilstrap stares intently at the television, watching the World Cup. Tony Meola, ponytail and all, is in goal for the United States.
Blame it on the crowd, the hype, or destiny. Whatever it was, that was when Hunter Gilstrap knew he was meant to play soccer.
Gilstrap’s father, Rick, played football at Clemson and was a coach at Wofford, Furman and The Citadel, among others. His mother, Kiki, is a former Miss South Carolina USA who now teaches with her husband in the Lexington school system. Hunter is their only child, but this is no story about an only child who got everything he wanted.
This is about how he recovered from a broken elbow and back surgery in college. How he has worked his way up from the third division of professional soccer in this country. How he spent six months in South Africa before deciding there were more important things than playing in front of big crowds in a foreign land. How he was named league goalkeeper of the year ... then came home to coach youths to love the game as much as he does.
The first step of his journey began at Lexington High School. An all-region goalie, he was recruited by the likes of Clemson, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth and Davidson. In the end, Clemson seemed the best fit.
Cue his first roadblock. On the third day of preseason training in 2001, Gilstrap broke his elbow. Back surgery, and a redshirt season, soon followed. Two years and 10 starts later, including a 1-0 shutout of rival South Carolina, he was named to the academic all-region team.
That could have been enough. Gilstrap decided he had more to prove.
“It made more sense for me to transfer,” he said. There was an opportunity for guaranteed playing time at the College of Charleston — and still harboring hopes of being a professional, he made the move.
“It felt so much different from Clemson,” Gilstrap said, “not necessarily better or worse, just different. And new.”
While it felt new, there was at least one thing that was familiar. Gilstrap had played club soccer in the Lexington area with Troy Lesesne. Throughout college they kept in touch, played against each other, and trained together in the offseason.
Lesesne had transition from playing and was a Charleston assistant coach as Gilstrap was transferring. As a coach, Lesesne saw another side of his friend.
“Although I knew him quite well, being on the other side as a coach allowed me to see how incredibly driven Hunter was,” Lesesne said. “His work ethic and desire is second to none.”
Gilstrap had three shutouts as the Cougars finished 9-8-2. A winning season — and a season that, when recalling it, Gilstrap goes on to talk about every other person but himself, complimenting his teammates and the coaching staff.
Transferring, Gilstrap tells you, was a leap of faith — a leap that paid off. He was picked by Miami FC in the United Soccer League (USL) First Division draft, 13th overall.
His amateur journey had concluded. His professional journey was only beginning.
Gilstrap’s first season was that of a typical rookie, with five appearances. He also got a taste of what happens in the minor leagues of soccer — in which constant switches mean you rent but rarely buy — with a move to Cleveland of the USL Second Division.
At Cleveland, he flourished. He started 20 games, leading the City Stars to the 2008 league championship. Then, a potential break — the team had connections in South Africa and when two roster spots opened up, Gilstrap was on his way to play for Maritzburg United of that country’s Premier League.
Playing in front of 35,000 fans per game may seem like a great experience, but it was a stormy one. There were high points — Gilstrap was named man of the match after a 2-1 victory against Amazulu. But before the World Cup, South Africa’s Premier League had a patchy reputation — something Gilstrap learned about when the club tried to make him the scapegoat in a 5-2 loss and scheduled a disciplinary hearing on whether he had tried hard enough.
Tired and frustrated, Gilstrap took advantage of an open ticket the club had provided to return to the United States. He left with 18 months remaining on his contract.
“I’ve never been in such negatively charged environment, and I had a hard time performing,” Gilstrap says now, calling it a learning experience he does not regret. “When I came back from South Africa, I felt like aged six years in the six months I was gone.”
Gilstrap re-signed with Cleveland, who had earned promotion to the USL First Division. He was made team captain — “you can’t be arrogant and loud in the beginning. You have to lead by example,” he says. “You more or less need to prove yourself.”
But the trip back to Cleveland was a testing one. The City Stars finished at the bottom in 2009 and “it’s not a whole lot of fun being at the bottom of the league,” he said.
After three teams and three leagues in two countries, some might have called it quits. Gilstrap took it as a sign that he had to keep working.
“Christianity has a lot to do with my motivation. You have to have a lot of faith to deal with this,” Gilstrap says of his motivation. “You need to be creative to make it work and it helps to have faith. It is a big part of what I do, probably the biggest.”
He pauses. “Faith is probably the biggest driving factor in my career.”
Separated from the City Stars, Gilstrap was left searching for a club for the 2010 season. His search ended in Pittsburgh and a roster spot with the Riverhounds, who play in the USL Second Division.
“It was late in preseason and everyone had goalies,” he says. “(Pittsburgh) made an offer and I wanted to be sure I had a team.
“There’s only a handful of pro teams in this country, it’s easy to get lost.”
Instead, he found his niche. The Riverhounds entered the season having gone five years since making the playoffs; with Gilstrap in goal, Pittsburgh finished in third and reached the USL-2 semifinals.
Gilstrap had six shutouts in 18 games and finished with a 1.00 goals against average. With him between the posts, Pittsburgh finished tied for the league lead in fewest goals allowed despite allowing the second-most shots.
It was the season of a lifetime and duly recognized as such — Gilstrap was named to the USL Second Division’s goalkeeper of the year and first-team all-league.
The discussion breaks to things outside of soccer. Gilstrap, who majored in secondary education, wondered what life would be like if he chose something over than soccer — “I kicked for the (football) team in ninth grade. Sometimes I wish I stuck with it.”
But soccer is the road that Gilstrap chose. Maybe it chose him. Nevertheless, he hopes to continue on as far as he can.
“I want to play as long as I can at the highest level I can,” he says. “Eventually I want to be coaching, so that’s the direction I want to go.”
To that end, Gilstrap returned to Lexington, giving group and individual lessons for several months. His is not the life of a pro athlete and an offseason of leisure that one would assume; a normal USL player’s salary is $1,500 per month plus bonuses for each win and a housing allowance.
Last month, he left Columbia to go back to Pittsburgh to join the staff at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy, working with youths in that area.
“Right now I only really do goalkeepers,” Gilstrap says. “(Coaching) is about building relationships before fine-tuning the soccer aspects, which takes a little bit of time.
“That’s why you ease into it. So many coaches don’t understand psychology; every player needs to be motivated differently.”
Hearing that makes you flash back to his lesson with Caroline Beaty in October. You talk to Beaty about what she learned in those lessons, how she started falling in love with the game.
“Whenever I’m out doing something,” she says, “he’s right there doing it with me.”
Gilstrap says he would be OK not playing 10 years from now, but he hopes to test himself at a higher level at some point — he had a tryout last season with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer — before his love affair with soccer ends.
There is no telling when that might be. For now, his message to aspiring players is “Don’t let somebody tell you what you can’t do.”
Take it from someone who knows what can be accomplished when given the opportunity.