During Maryland men’s soccer’s preseason camp in 2015, incoming freshmen Andrew Samuels and Dayne St. Clair, after just meeting, joined a pickup game.
Samuels watched St. Clair repeatedly come up with impressive saves on shots from midfielders Mael Corboz and Tsubasa Endoh, seniors at the time who went on to earn MLS contracts. By the end of the game, Samuels was convinced.
“Wow,” Samuels thought. “This kid’s gonna do something special here.”
ABOVE: St. Clair stepped up as one of the Terps’ leaders this year as they rebuilt their entire backline.
It took two years and a redshirt, but this season, St. Clair has lived up to the potential Samuels saw that night, becoming one of the most consistent members of a team that replaced its entire backline.
When Maryland plays Albany to begin the NCAA tournament Thursday, St. Clair will look to help snap the Terps’ five-game losing streak and avenge the team’s second-round tournament exit last season.
“He’s been a great story this year for us,” associate head coach Brian Rowland said, “and hopefully he’s got a few more chapters to go.”
ABOVE: Facing the prospect of being a Maryland backup for a second straight year, St. Clair honed his skills with the Canadian U-20 National Team. (Courtesy of Dayne St. Clair)
Despite losing goalkeeper Cody Niedermeier and the entire backline this offseason, the Terps weren’t concerned about replacing that production with St. Clair returning that spring.
They watched St. Clair spend two years preparing for his chance to lead the Terps, including redshirting last season to pursue national team opportunities for his native Canada.
Three years earlier, St. Clair came to College Park pegged to potentially replace goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
That winter, the Terps didn’t know whether Steffen would return for his junior season. He signed a professional contract nearly a month after his sophomore campaign ended, leaving Maryland without much time to find a replacement.
To aid that search, coach Sasho Cirovski turned to Carmine Isacco, a contact from his earliest days at Maryland who’s since moved on but still recommends talented players to Cirovski.
Isacco was a Terps goalkeeper and was on the selection committee that hired Cirovski and then coached alongside him early in his career. He’s now the director of soccer at Vaughan Soccer Club in Ontario, Canada, where St. Clair played for the end of his club career.
Isacco pegged the 6-foot-4 keeper as a “must get” for Cirovski.
“Athletes we recommend have to be exceptional to go to Maryland,” Isacco said. “Dayne fit the bill in every way, shape and form.”
Cirovski and the coaching staff, including Rowland, traveled to Canada for a showcase in December 2014 to scout a few potential recruits, but they left sold on St. Clair.
“He’s got a pro body, [and] you could tell, even at age 16, he had a presence,” Rowland said. “You could tell as he developed, [those characteristics] would eventually be able to lead to some professional opportunities.”
The relationships between Isacco, Cirovski and Rowland — another Ontario native goalkeeper Isaco once coached — made St. Clair’s recruitment process, though accelerated, smooth.
The Terps brought St. Clair to the campus shortly after and secured his commitment just a week before the February signing day.
“Usually, when we want somebody,” Cirovski said, “we get them.”
ABOVE: St. Clair returned from his time with Canada ready to make the kind of impact the Terps coaching staff envisioned when they recruited him. (Courtesy of Dayne St. Clair)
Maryland recruited St. Clair to be a “big-time impact goalkeeper,” Rowland said, and Cirovski expected him and Niedermeier — who arrived in College Park in 2012 but hadn’t played in his first three years — to split time in St. Clair’s freshman year.
Niedermeier and St. Clair alternated starts in the team’s first four games, but St. Clair never saw the field again as Niedermeier won the job.
Cirovski said he anticipated St. Clair would need some “sculpting” because he didn’t play at the highest level growing up.
“It was definitely a culture change on and off the field,” St. Clair said. “Just developing what the college game was like, because I [had] never really experienced it.”
Despite St. Clair’s lack of playing time, Rowland saw him grow from his first year of college, believing the areas he most needed to improve wouldn’t have been learned in games, anyway.
“The biggest thing was getting him in an environment where he was going to be pushed and forced to be accountable in training,” Rowland said. “[Niedermeier] was one of the best we had at bringing that kind of energy and fire … You could see that really started to rub off on Dayne.”
As he adjusted to the nature of college soccer and grew to understand the competitiveness and pride associated with college sports in America, St. Clair developed a spirit similar to Niedermeier’s.
But with Niedermeier coming off a successful junior campaign, St. Clair was poised for another season as a backup.
Entering late summer, though, St. Clair received an opportunity to play with the Canada U-20 National Team over the fall and winter during the leadup to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
Maryland’s coaches decided St. Clair should take a redshirt season and commit to the Canadian team.
“There was no point in me just kind of playing a couple of games [for Maryland],” St. Clair said, “when I [can] finish with an extra year.”
St. Clair said he initially thrived with the national team. But his form dipped, causing coach Rob Gale to bring in new goalkeepers.
“It was definitely a culture change.”
— Dayne St. Clair on playing at the college level
St. Clair’s playing time was mostly limited to Canada’s camps, not earning a minute in any of the team’s three CONCACAF U-20 Championship games.
Throughout that process, St. Clair leaned on his experience backing up Niedermeier to make the most of his time on the sideline and in training.
During his redshirt season, St. Clair was enrolled in online classes and split time between College Park and wherever his national team obligations took him.
It’s a rhythm St. Clair said many Canadian players are used to, having grown up traveling to the United States and back across the border for soccer obligations.
Still, it was an odd arrangement for some of his teammates and friends, such as Samuels.
“He missed a couple of big, pretty big Big Ten games,” Samuels said. “It was kind of weird not having him here all the time, honestly.”
St. Clair, though, was on the Ludwig Field sidelines for the Terps’ heartbreaking 5-4 loss to Providence in their first NCAA tournament game last season. When the final buzzer sounded on that blustery night, St. Clair knew it was on him to lead the team’s redemption campaign.
ABOVE: Despite being a goalkeeper, the team considers St. Clair one of its most technical players and relies on his distribution to spark attacks. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
All spring and summer, St. Clair showed an increased intensity and confidence to match his improved skills.
“Everybody just knew that it was his time,” Samuels said. “He kind of just owned it and came up huge last spring in our game against North Carolina. … That’s when everybody was like, ‘OK, this kid’s going to be something special.’”
That’s transferred to the fall season, as St. Clair has made several highlight-reel saves, including a breakout performance against Indiana in which he made a pair of breathtaking overtime stops to preserve a draw.
“In that specific moment, I just try not to overthink it,” St. Clair said. “I know my body can do it, so I feel like I try not to let my mind get involved and just do things instinctively.”
Finally in a starting role this season, goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has made several spectacular saves for the Terps. (clips via BTN/ESPN) pic.twitter.com/A3Sbx84beT
— James Crabtree-Hannigan (@JamesCrabtreeH) November 16, 2017
That shift in confidence, Rowland said, has allowed St. Clair to take advantage of what’s likely changed the most over the past couple of years: his leadership.
Isacco, who also stepped away from Maryland to represent Canada during his career, said national team experience often helps develop competitiveness and game sense.
“He’s been there before,” Samuels said. “He’s played on bigger stages.”
This season, in particular, Maryland required a goalkeeper adept at communication and cohesiveness. The Terps’ starting backline included two defenders who joined the team late and one who’d never played defense before this season.
Moments like that Indiana performance helped build trust and take pressure off the new-look backline. They’re also the result of a player who believed in his coaches despite a winding road to stardom.
Through the tumultuous end of this season, Maryland has kept faith it still has the potential to reach the heights it aspired to before this season.
Then it’s fitting, perhaps, for one of the team’s biggest leaders to have taken a long-term approach to his career, trusting the coaches and never allowing himself to be too caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs.
“There’s much more to prove,” St. Clair said after recording a career-high six saves against Indiana. “One game doesn’t define the whole season for me.”
Game after game, however, St. Clair has risen to the occasion. Even as the Terps’ overall play has collapsed down the stretch, St. Clair has saved the Terps countless times.
“As soon as the spring started last year … he came in with a great attitude and said, ‘This is my time, this is my team, and time to get to work,’” Cirovski said. “And it is his team. It is his time.”