HOOVER, Ala. — In a season where Billy Schuler has superbly shouldered the responsibility of being North Carolina’s go-to guy, it bears acknowledging that this time last year, his shoulder was too damaged for him to even play at all.
The injury robbed him of all but two matches last season, and the opportunity to participate in last season’s championship bid. Now he’s back, and evidently better than ever. His comeback season had its greatest moment so far Friday night against UCLA. His goal allowed the Tar Heels to tie the match late, win it on penalty kicks, and earn the right to play Charlotte for the NCAA men’s soccer title.
What a season it has been for the Allentown, N.J., redshirt junior. He leads the Tar Heels with 16 goals and has set a personal single-season record having reached double figures in goals scored. His 37 points are the most since Ryan Kneipper’s 45 during the 2002 season.
He’s made his shots count, too. Schuler has taken 90 shots and has 90 points. In his 24 games, his marker decided one third of them. Three of them came in overtime wins over NC State, Virginia and Indiana.
For his effort, Schuler is one of three finalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy, an award given annually to the top player in college men’s soccer. And he, along with teammates Matt Hedges and Enzo Martinez have also been named to the NSCAA All-America First Team. It is the first time in school history that three players earned first team honors in the same season. Schuler was named to the third team in 2009 as a sophomore after a nine-goal, five-assist season.
Because Schuler’s 2009 season was so strong, 2010 held so much hope. Then, out of nowhere, an injury from his childhood cost him a season. He’d hurt his shoulder years ago and it hadn’t given him much trouble until the summer of 2010. His right shoulder subluxed — a condition similar to a dislocation, but instead of the joint popping out, it stretches the ligaments and sometimes tears. Schuler tore his labrum, the ligament in his shoulder joint that made his shoulder very unstable and susceptible to repeatedly popping out.
“I learned a lot about it,” Schuler said. “It was almost like do I risk going through the season? And what happens if it comes out to the point where it won’t really stay in and risk the year? I was like, I’m going to try and play.”
In his second game against Seton Hall, he collided with their goalkeeper. The shoulder came out again.
“I was like it’s probably not worth it,” Schuler said. “I’ve got to get the surgery. The doctors were telling me I got to get it and would have to get it eventually. So I got the surgery.
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“That was agonizing. It was agonizing sitting in the stands in the postseason and watching everything happen. Wishing them the best, but also at the same time wishing I were out there. That was a little tough last year, but I had no doubt about being back here. It was my goal to come to the College Cup and help the guys get back.”
That meant almost a year of work. For three months following surgery Schuler couldn’t do thing. Then that was followed by two months of rehab. Then more work post-rehab.
“It was about nine months of hard work,” Schuler said. “It was very tough. But considering it all, it was worth it.”
The long journey was made even more gratifying by his goal Friday. It helped save a season that he hopes ends in a title.
“I was just so happy we got a score,” Schuler said. Enzo hit a ball that just knuckled. The goalie was out of position, but still got a hand on it. It hit the post and luckily I was there to put it away.
“One more game to go. We have a chance to win the College Cup for the first time in my career. Obviously it’s been a tough road but to be here means everything.”