Men's Soccer vs RWU

Wheaton center back Keith Vanini of Londonderry, shown in action this season against Roger Williams, has improved his skills on the ball this season, says coach Bryan Waggoner.

After ACL injury in his final high school season, Wheaton College defender is now excelling.

NORTON, Mass. — When Nick Vanini tore his right ACL playing soccer during his senior year for Londonderry High School, his chances of playing in college could have been derailed.

To say Vanini wasn’t going to let that happen was an understatement because he’s gone on to have a solid career at Wheaton College.

“I was out for a year but I feel stronger than ever,” said Vanini, a junior center back, before Thursday’s practice. “Physically it was painful for a month.

“After that you have to push yourself mentally. You can continue to do the rehab but it’s being consistent.”

Coach Bryan Waggoner, who was hired in January 2019, said Vanini’s injury precluded him from being heavily recruited.

‘”I think he might have been overlooked in recruiting because he missed that vital year of recruiting,” Waggoner said. “The injury never fazed me or changed his game. From a coaching perspective you’re always concerned about injuries — if they’re going to slow players down or if they’re going to affect them mentally. But there wasn’t anything that showed me his injury was going to slow him from becoming a great player in the future.

“Nick has become one of our rocks.”

As a center back, Vanini has numerous responsibilities.

“Last year his strengths were he could block shots and was hard on a tackle,” Waggoner said. “But his ability on the ball, passing and picking out good passes was where he struggled a little. He worked on it and this year he’s playing exceptional.

“We’re a possession team so we need our players to pick out good passes. That’s where his game has evolved to where he’s become one of the top center backs in the conference (NEWMAC).”

Vanini began playing soccer at age 3. Eventually he gravitated to center back because he relished playing defense instead of forward or midfield — positions that account for the majority of a team’s offense.

“Although there isn’t a lot of notoriety and you might not get recognized all the time, the feeling you get when you get a clean sheet or make a good tackle make center back one of the most important positions on the field,” Vanini said. “Physically, I’m strong in the air. I win a lot of head balls. I might not be the fastest guy but tactically I have a good soccer IQ.

“I don’t look for accolades and don’t want the attention.”

Vanini has scored four career goals and assisted on three.

“His goals have come predominantly on set pieces,” Waggoner said. “He’s one of our targets on set pieces. He’s excellent in the air. He missed a lot of chances his freshman year but now he hunts balls in the box.”

Vanini went from sitting on the bench to being a starter as a sophomore, but he hasn’t let his proficiency go to his head.

“He’s a silent leader,” Waggoner said. “He shows up every day and puts in a good training session. He’s a guy that younger players can look up to in terms of how he prepares for a game.

“He’s a blue-collar player. He’s not the prettiest player but he gets the job done. Selflessness and heart are two words that exemplify what Nick brings to the team.”

Vanini said he benefited from playing for Londonderry coach Todd Ellis.

“Coach Ellis was a very good coach for me,” he said. “He gave me the opportunity to play. I think the bond and connection he had with our team and the fact he pushed us helped me develop as a player.”