When Oregon men’s club soccer coach Alex Riley looked at the roster going into this season, he knew he needed a center back to play opposite senior Zach Donner.

Going into double days and tryouts in September, Riley looked for someone to emerge.

“I really wanted someone who would complement Zach in the back,” Riley said. “I was looking for someone who was obviously tall, aggressive and could work with Zach to communicate. At double days, I was looking for someone exactly like that and, luckily, Kevin was there.”

Kevin Cotter, a towering 6-foot-4 freshman from Palos Verdes, California, came into double days intending to make a strong first impression. Cotter’s size and how physical he played with the older guys caught Riley’s attention.

“He was pushing me around and getting the ball off me, which I love to see,” Riley said.

Cotter made the team and learned just prior to the season that he would be starting — only one of two freshmen to do so this year. Starting as a freshman is rare, particularly as a center back, according to Donner. Cotter, Donner and the rest of Oregon’s back line haven’t allowed more than two goals in any league games this season and have three clean sheets.

Although far from the fastest player on the soccer field, Cotter’s size is his greatest advantage. But Cotter didn’t always embrace the physicality of the game before coming to Eugene.

“They used to call me the gentle giant because I really avoided [contact],” Cotter said. “My club coach back home whipped me into shape and was like, ‘Kevin, you’re big, freakin’ use it. Hit people.’ “

Cotter answered his coach’s challenge and became a different player.

Seasoned Oregon men’s soccer players like Riley and Donner are impressed by this year’s freshmen class as a whole. But Cotter’s consistent play, in his precarious position in front of the goal, makes him a reliable option for the defense.

“You can go with inexperience on the wings and get away with it,” Donner said. “But at center back, you make one mistake and they’re through on goal. Seeing Kevin starting as a freshman, what’s amazing is he just doesn’t make many mistakes … That’s extremely rare as a freshman.”

Away from soccer, Cotter is reserved and maybe even shy at times. When he’s on the field though, Cotter makes his voice heard.

“I’m quiet as hell,” Cotter said. “But on the soccer field, you kind of have to throw that away. Even though the guys are four or five years older than you, you have to yell at them. It’s what you have to do as a center back.”

Oregon clinched first place in its league last weekend with a 1-0 victory over Portland State and a 2-2 draw against University of Portland. Now the team heads to Phoenix for the 2015 NIRSA National Soccer Championships, beginning with pool play on Thursday.

The team lost to Central Florida 3-0 in last year’s semifinals, but players insist this year’s team has a different feel. With the addition of impact freshmen, emerging return players and veteran presence, expectations are high for this year’s nationals, Riley said.

“During the game, everyone’s goal is to win, and I haven’t seen that from a lot the teams I’ve been on the past four years. For nationals, we have a good run this year.”

Follow Will Denner on Twitter @Will_Denner

Please consider donating to the Emerald. We are an independent non-profit dedicated to supporting and educating this generation's best journalists. Your donation helps pay equipment costs, travel, payroll, and more!