BY KONNER METZ
T.J. Hastings did not know where he was going to play college soccer at the end of his senior year of high school.
After committing to the University of Virginia, the Appoquinimink High School product changed course and decommitted in May. With his college search reopened and many programs already having filled out their full rosters, uncertainty was at the forefront for the star defender.
“When I decommitted, I was kind of freaking out,” Hastings, ranked second in the state of Delaware in 2022, said. “At the time, I didn’t know where to go.”
When Tommy McMenemy, head coach of Delaware men’s soccer, heard from Hastings’ club coach that he decommitted, an opportunity for Hastings to play Division I soccer in his home state presented itself.
“We knew enough to know that he had too many high-end playing tools for us to not consider,” McMenemy said. “So it was a matter of whether his character would be a fit for what we were trying to build here at UD.”
When Hastings came onto campus, it all clicked for him and the team.
“We felt that there was an immediate connection,” McMenemy said. “He was humble, he was competitive. He had a growth mindset, and he seemed determined, at that point, that Delaware was a place he could be taken care of on a personal level [and] develop on a football level.”
Over the summer, Hastings was forced to earn a spot in the starting lineup. He did just that and proved his worth as an “excellent teammate” and hard worker, according to McMenemy.
Now, just a handful of months after joining the team, Hastings has blossomed into one of the most dynamic defenders in the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA). Described as physical by his coach, Hastings has made the most of his big break at Delaware.
He has three goals on the season, along with a total of eight points – both fourth highest on the team. The freshman has not been shy to fire away with 20 shots on the season, 10 of those on goal.
“I’m always hungry for goals even though I’m a defender,” Hastings said. “I’m always trying to score, I’m always trying to create chances for my team. If I see the ball in the air, I’ll track it and try to get something out of it.”
McMenemy said that Hastings is a large part of the team’s set pieces around the net because of his “single-minded” and “eyes only for the ball” mentality. Hastings feels as if his header is his best attribute down near the opposition’s net.
However, a couple crossbars and some bad luck rendered Hastings scoreless through his first nine matches as a Blue Hen. A diving header on the road at George Washington University on Sept. 26 changed that.
“Once I got my first one, it just kind of clicked, and now I’m getting more confident around the box with my heading ability,” he said. “So they’re finally starting to drop, which is amazing.”
After notching his second in early October to help the Hens draw with conference rival Drexel University, Hastingswas named the CAA Rookie of the Week for the second time in a row. But his most memorable score so far as a Blue Hen came in Delaware’s upset win over then-No. 18 Hofstra University on Oct. 14.
Fellow freshman defender Jan Schroeder sent a pass to Hastings near the post, the latter of whom rose over defenders and put a header behind the keeper, a go-ahead score in the 2-1 victory. It was the university’s first win over Hofstra since 2014.
“I see it, I track it and I score it,” Hastings said of the goal. “I’m just like ‘Holy s—, I just scored against Hofstra.’”
That win propelled Delaware (9-3-5, 3-2-3 CAA) up the CAA standings with a shot at qualifying for the six-team tournament in November. The Blue Hens did just that Saturday versus College of Charleston with a 2-1, tournament-clinching victory.
The triumph helped the Blue Hens to the No. 4 seed and a tournament matchup against No. 5 Drexel this Thursday. Last year, Delaware managed just four total wins and a 2-6-1 conference record.
The Hens sport a young and talented back-end every time on the pitch, with Hastings, Schroeder and fellow freshman Sean Smith typically lining up at the start alongside senior defender Liam Fuller.
Fifth-year defender Alvin Halley serves as an integral part of the back-end as well, along with being one of the team’s vocal leaders.
“He’s a great guy, you can talk to him about anything,” Hastings said of Halley. “He’s always there for you. He’s a team leader.”
And as the experienced Halley and Fuller lead the much-improved back-end into the postseason, the future is undeniably bright.
Smith, who is from Robbinsville, New Jersey, often crossed paths with Hastings during his high school days in club soccer matches.
“I didn’t really know him that well,” Hastings said. “But as soon as we met [at Delaware], we instantly became, like, best friends in a way. He’s a funny guy. He’s probably one of the funniest kids I’ve met.”
McMenemy sees potential with Hastings and Smith that could continue for years to come in Newark.
“They’ve become close off the field as they have with the other freshmen,” McMenemy said. “There’s a special relationship there that we think can blossom into one of the best defensive partnerships in the CAA and in the country.”