Souhegan grad Griffith making UNH soccer history with run to NCAAs

DURHAM — The coaches of the America East Conference lit a fire under University New Hampshire soccer star Willis Griffith. They named Griffith, a graduate student out of Souhegan High School, All-America East Conference … Second Team.

“I’d be lying if I told you I was happy with it,” said the Northwestern University grad, who is working on his masters in public policy while finishing up his fourth year of Division 1 college soccer at UNH. “It’s nice, but it’s not good enough. It’s only going to push me harder.”

His play on the field this fall for the Wildcats is a major reason that he and UNH have the opportunity to push harder, deep into November. Griffith anchored a UNH back line that helped earn the institution’s second-ever NCAA Tournament berth, first in the last 23 years.

Thursday night (7 p.m.), the Wildcats, No. 21 in the nation, host Fairfield University in the opening-round contest.

Before he moves into the tourney, Willis gave us some time to talk about life away from the pitch, the road to UNH and yes, his favorite offseason beverage (Remember, he’s 23 years old).

All right, Willis, so do us a favor, let’s get the “Reader’s Digest” version of your collegiate career?

“Coming out of Souhegan, a number of schools recruited me, but Villanova was there early, and they did the best job presenting themselves on my visit. I played two years there, starting nearly every game, but things didn’t click for me, athletically or academically.

“After my sophomore season, I wanted to look elsewhere, and Northwestern was the best possible academic school that was interested in me. I decided to go there. It was a great decision. Three days into the preseason, I broke my foot, and that actually worked out for the best for me. I got to know my teammates and learn about them. I got to settle into life out there, and I became a leader on the team. I started as a senior the next year.

I know they play football and basketball at Northwestern and in the Big-10 Conference, but soccer?

“It’s actually a great soccer school with some amazing, talented players. The Big-10 Conference is one of the best places in the country to be an athlete. Northwestern offered a very welcoming athletic community. The athletes in different sports come together there, much more than the other places I’ve been.”

Academically, were you pushed hard there at Northwestern?

“I really was, but it came together for me there. I hit my stride. I tell people now, when I graduated Souhegan, my gpa was under 3.0. When I graduated from Northwestern (with a BA in Political Science), I was on the dean’s list.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa? You’re into politics, and you went from Villanova to Northwestern?

“Yes, they are pretty much diametrically opposed with Villanova being very conservative and very Catholic and

Northwestern leaning very liberal, with an attitude of political correctness.”

And now, you’re at the Carsey School at UNH as a grad student? Where do you lean?

“It’s higher education here, so there is definitely a liberal lean. This is New Hampshire, though and (conservatism) definitely surrounds the campus in the different communities. I’m still really forming my own political opinions. I definitely lean left, but Iim from New Hampshire, and I’ve got plenty of small government notions in my head.”

Because of the injury, you got the chance to play one more year, why at UNH?

“I knew a lot about (Head Coach) Marc Hubbard coming in. I used to go to watch his teams at SNHU. This is a phenomenal coaching staff. We’ve had a heck of a year. It’s been incredible with everyone buying in to the system. And this is no mistake. It’s no fluke. This is going to keep happening.”

And the team name had to be Wildcats, right?

“Three for three, Villanova, Northwestern and now UNH.”

Other schools must have recruited you?

“Yep, and other coaches told me that UNH was the kiss of death to my soccer career. I’m pretty sure I got the last laugh on that one. I get to end my college career with my first-ever NCAA appearance. That’s awesome. And we’re going in it because we deserve to be here. We expect to win some games.”

What about after college? You can finish the masters by the summer. Is pro soccer in the works?

“It’s nice to dream. I think I have some pro prospects. I had a great fall season, but I have to be realistic as well. I’d love to get an invite to the (MLS) combine and potentially the draft. It would be an honor just to be able to go out there with those players. Pro soccer would be nice, but I have a phenomenal education to fall back on.”

Politics?

“Public service for sure. Who knows? Maybe I will go back to Chicago, or maybe politics in New Hampshire. I just applied to the Peace Corps for a position in Rwanda. Whatever it is, I want to work for the greater good.”

OK, so you’re well-traveled through college?

“I also lived with my family for six years in Switzerland, moving back to Amherst when I was 12.”

So what did you like most about that?

“The view, I’d say. It’s tough to pass up the views of the Swiss Alps as you’re driving to school.”

And how about Philadelphia?

“That’s a tougher one. It sounds a little silly, but I loved the architecture there.”

Chicago?

“Easy, the food. It was amazing. You can travel the world, just by walking down one street in Chicago. It’s definitely some place I will end up again.”

How about New Hampshire?

“Amherst is a phenomenal place. The Seacoast is great, too, just good, honest people. I live in Newmarket, now, and Portsmouth is all about live music, coffee and micro-breweries. That fits me perfectly.

OK, so out of soccer season you are a fan of the micro-brews. How about the best you’ve had since coming home to New Hampshire?

“The Yard in Manchester. It has the best ‘Coffee Porter’ I have ever had.”

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