The Riverhead High School boys soccer team has an obvious connection to Dowling College. Riverhead’s coach, Lamine Traore, left his west African country Mali to accept a full soccer scholarship from Dowling in 2006, the same year Dowling won the NCAA Division II championship. He was the top Division II goal scorer in the country with 26 in 2008, the same year he led the Golden Lions to the national final and was named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America third team.
Now Riverhead has another Dowling connection: His name is Anthony Antunes.
Antunes, a senior forward, signed a national letter of intent on Tuesday to play for Dowling.
It might be logical to assume that Traore had exerted some influence over his all-league player to select Dowling, but that apparently wasn’t the case. “I didn’t do anything, honestly,” said Traore, who finished his four-year career at Dowling with 39 goals and 11 assists in 61 games played.
What might have made the difference in Antunes’ decision was Dowling’s interest in him. Antunes said he had asked Dowling’s coach, John DiRico, to watch him play with his travel team at a tournament, and the coach complied. Under normal conditions, that wouldn’t be extraordinary, but these weren’t normal conditions.
“It was the coldest day,” Antunes said, recounting that day. “It was pouring rain. It was the worst weather you can ever ask for. Nobody was there at that game except for the Dowling coach. He came to watch me play … in the pouring rain and freezing cold, and me seeing that, it said something to me.”
DiRico could not be reached immediately for comment.
St. John’s, Adelphi and Queens College were also under consideration, but Antunes made his final decision official with some strokes of a pen during a signing ceremony at the office of Riverhead High School’s principal, Charles Regan.
“It’s a dream come true, to be honest,” Antunes said afterward.
The choice to go to Dowling wasn’t as difficult for Antunes as was one he made last summer. Antunes was on a tryout with the Portuguese Second Division club Varzim Sport Club, which offered him an invitation to join its youth academy. The tempting offer had a catch: Antunes would have had to remain with the club and not returned to Riverhead for his senior year in high school.
“It was the most hard decision I ever had to make in my whole life,” he said. “That day was unreal, the emotions that went through my head, back and forth.”
Antunes, who was in Portugal with his mother Rosa, made his decision that day. When he called his father Jose to say he wanted to come home, “The first thing my dad said was, ‘O.K., come home.’ ”
As flattering as the offer from Varzim was, Antunes said he wanted to make a smart decision. “Ultimately,” he said, “I think I did make the right decision.”
Traore agrees that it was the correct move. “Whatever you get here, that’s yours,” the coach said, pointing to his head. “No one can take that.”
Antunes said the support of his family has helped him advance his soccer career as far as it has. That includes his late grandfather, who had encouraged his soccer playing. Antunes said that ever since his grandfather died two years ago, he wrote the word “grandpa” in Portuguese on a wristband he wore during games. He kissed the wristband every time he scored a goal.
“He pretty much gave my family life, immigrating to America” from Portugal, Antunes said. “He did a lot for my family, and I owe it to him.”
Antunes kissed that wristband a lot. As a junior, he put up 8 goals and 5 assists. But he improved on that his senior season, collecting 11 goals and 5 assists as the team went 5-10. He finished his high school career with 24 goals for the Blue Waves.
Soccer is a simple game that, when played correctly, looks easier than it is. Antunes described his playing style as simple.
“I don’t want to complicate things,” he said. “I don’t want to make things seem harder than they are. … I want to be the player that plays simple as a team player and works with the team to win games.”
Antunes said Traore has been a big help to him. “He never told me, ‘You’re good,’ ” Antunes said. “He always said, ‘You got to go farther.’ ”
Antunes said he has not written off his dream of one day playing professional soccer. Perhaps one day it will happen, but in the meantime he was enjoying the prospect of playing for Dowling.
Asked if he felt proud of himself on signing day, Antunes replied: “Being proud is one thing, but I’m not stopping here. There’s no stop for me. I’m just going to keep going and going until the mark is reached.”