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Hartley a cornerstone for GGC's first soccer team

Staff Photo: John Bohn GGC goalkeeper Greg Hartley is a team leader who grew up in Manchester, England. Hartley is a long time Manchester United fan.

Staff Photo: John Bohn GGC goalkeeper Greg Hartley is a team leader who grew up in Manchester, England. Hartley is a long time Manchester United fan.

LAWRENCEVILLE --Long before Georgia Gwinnett College men's soccer coach Steve DeCou finished his first recruiting class, he knew a centerpiece of his initial Grizzlies team was on board.

Greg Hartley, DeCou's goalkeeper in his previous head coaching job at Belhaven University (Miss.), planned to transfer to another school when he changed his major path from sports medicine after his junior season. He looked elsewhere for computer science programs and found that GGC was the ideal fit in two ways --the college offered a good program in his major and a chance to play for his old head coach.

That's how the most experienced member of the Grizzlies' first varsity soccer team, a 22-year-old native of Manchester, England, ended up in Lawrenceville.

He brought a wealth of college experience to his new team from three years of soccer, two at Lindsey Wilson College (Ky.) and one at Belhaven. He won an NAIA national championship as a freshman at Lindsey Wilson, but decided to play his final season at a college that isn't eligible for any titles in its first year of play.

"It's tough because you always want to compete for a championship," Hartley said. "But being able to come here with Coach DeCou, start up a new program and make history is great. You rarely get that opportunity."

The situation also worked out perfectly for DeCou. The NAIA All-American goalkeeper he left at Belhaven reunited with him again and became one of the gems of his inaugural recruiting class.

Hartley is a seasoned goalkeeper at the college level --he allowed just 17 goals in 19 games last season at Belhaven --but he also played with and against world-class players in the Manchester City program for 10 years, beginning when he was 9 years old. He was a standout this summer with Chattanooga FC in its runner-up finish in the National Premier Soccer League.

"There are two positions, goalkeeper and striker, who are going to win you games you have no chance of winning," DeCou said. "He's going to make a save that's going to keep a ball out and a striker is going to score something out of nothing and you win 1-0. What we've got this year with Greg and some of the other boys up front, we've got a foundation in place. They've got confidence.

"Emmanuel had a couple of opportunities (last) Saturday night and he just stuffed them. An average keeper, that goal goes in and we lose 2-1. Instead we tie 1-1. There were games last year that he won for us."

One other factor played a major role in Hartley finding his way to GGC. He likely wouldn't be playing college soccer in the U.S. if not for that one attribute that is out of his control.

"It's my height," Hartley said. "I'm a goalkeeper. Everybody wants 6-foot plus goalkeepers and I'm not that."

Manchester City parted ways with him when he was 19 as new owners spent money on high-profile, taller goalkeepers for its programs. It left the 5-foot-10 Hartley looking at other options and instead of pursuing professional soccer elsewhere, he opted to play for a U.S. college and work on his education. That he played for Manchester City (though he's a big Manchester United fan) and boasts a British accent makes him pretty believable as a soccer standout before he steps on a field.

"He's a good goalkeeper, period, whether he was from South Gwinnett or Manchester," DeCou said of the stout 210-pounder. "The way he can hit a ball. He can strike a ball. The only guys I've ever seen who are comparable are full pros. His only problem is he's too short. If he was 6-1 or 6-2, he's back in England making a nice salary. We're happy to have him over here. For a stocky guy, he's quick. He's got good jumping ability. He's got great hands. But his feet are his best attributes."

As goalkeepers often do, Hartley quickly took on a leadership role with his new team. His previous experience makes him qualified, as does his status as one of three seniors on the GGC roster --fellow England native and roommate Tom Butler and Collins Hill grad Alejandro Duque are the others.

He's known to all of them as "Greggaa," the nickname he's used for years.

"He's your typical goalkeeper, not quite right in the head, but he brings such a great spirit, passion and energy to us," DeCou said. "In the two years I've been able to work him, I see a good teammate. I see him always trying to help the boys. Sometimes in his English ways, it's a little abrasive. He's demanding, but at the end of the day he's the kind of keeper I would have wanted to play for. Not just because of the talent, but he is a good teammate. You know where you stand with him. When you do well, he lets you know it. When you do poorly, he lets you know it."

Hartley still plans to play soccer beyond GGC and DeCou said that he will look into tryouts for the Atlanta Silverbacks, where GGC volunteer assistant and Grayson grad Eric Ati also is a goalkeeper. He will broaden his search for teams when he graduates from GGC, but he still has a full two years of school to make up for the major change. Because of that, he plans to help coach the Grizzlies for the 2013 season as he finishes his school work.

However, his initial contributions to GGC will be on the field as an exceptional goalkeeper and a leader for a team that is has a mix of local American players with countries like England, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Scotland, Colombia, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Cameroon and West Africa.

"It's going good so far," Hartley said. "We're definitely developing better. We have players of a lot of different places and nationalities, but the team has gelled great. We all have the love of the game. If you can't speak English, Spanish, we all speak that language of soccer.

"We want to be part of the history of the program here. We want to help lay the foundation so they can hopefully start winning titles here in the future."