By Jeff Keeling
It was against those same Buccaneers Oct. 4 that Altman, Tennessee’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year last spring, broke through with a first goal. Fellow freshman Sam Ross delivered a cross from the left wing 11 minutes into the second half and Altman, playing striker, put a header just past diving ETSU keeper Jonny Sutherland and into the left corner.
In addition to being Altman’s first collegiate goal, the strike was the first regulation-time goal ETSU had allowed in more than 700 minutes – the equivalent of nearly eight full games – and Sutherland was a day away from being named the Southern Conference player of the month for September. It proved to be the difference in a 1-0 win that put Wofford at 7-3 overall and 2-1 in the Southern Conference.
“To get my first collegiate goal against my hometown team almost felt like fate, and it added a whole new level to it,” Altman said during a phone interview Friday. “It was a moment I’ll never forget. It’s tough to describe it aside from the fact that it’s absolutely crazy.”
What isn’t crazy, his current and former coaches both say, is the prospect of Altman adding plenty of scintillating moments over the course of his college career, and doing so in a fashion that wins him the love and respect of his teammates.
“He’s a great kid,” Wofford coach Ralph Polson said Friday. “Very coachable. Just tons of personality. He’s a great teammate. His teammates love him.”
Polson has a relatively young team that he expects to be very good over the next few years, and he said Altman is one of his freshmen who’s adjusted quickly to the next level. Among true freshmen, he leads the team in minutes played, has started the past five games and averaged 74 minutes, and is being used at both striker and defensive midfielder in Polson’s 4-3-3 set up.
“He’s skillful, he’s got good size (5-9, 170), and he understands the game,” Polson said. “There’s still a lot to learn, but he’s a very humble kid and humility is a big deal in terms of his success. He’s going to be a joy to coach the next four years.”
And four years it will be, Science Hill coach David Strickland said. Strickland coached Altman through high school and also last spring and summer during the Tri-Cities Otters’ inaugural season in the Premier Development League. Strickland said he is confident Altman will be playing professionally some day, but even if that chance were to come with eligibility remaining at Wofford, Altman won’t be tempted.
“He’ll go to the next level when his degree is in his pocket,” Strickland said. “He’s a bright kid and he’ll make sure that part is taken care of and then he’ll go on and play.”
Much of Altman’s promise derives from his technical skills and strength said Strickland, who sent Altman a note after the ETSU game congratulating him for “opening his account.”
“Lucas has very good speed, but would you call it excellent speed? No. He became very technical with the ball. He’s got incredible touch, he sees the field very well. He’s got the ability to concentrate the whole match. It’s very difficult to get him knocked off his game.”
Strickland said the physicality and speed of the PDL helped prepare Altman for the college level, and Polson agreed. “We’ve got a small group of freshmen, and he’s one of the ones that’s come in and made the adjustment,” Polson said. “I think it helped playing in the PDL all summer.”
For his part, Altman said he’s used to getting moved around position-wise having played everywhere from center mid, center back and striker in club soccer, which he played from the age of six. “With any role, I’ll take it,” Altman said “Whatever gets me on the field and however I can help the team win.
“The story in our family is that I first walked when I could get up and go get a soccer ball – I think I was just meant to play soccer.”
That said, Altman selected Wofford for several reasons. They included the way Polson and assistant Shane Talbert, a former Dobyns-Bennett coach, approached recruiting him. He called the recruiting process while dealing with some other schools, “pretty tough on me,” and said the pair were straightforward with him and the process was swift.
“I could tell they genuinely wanted me and you can’t say that about many coaches.”
Altman also chose Wofford for its reputation as an academically excellent liberal arts school. He plans to major in finance or economics and the school is well-regarded in both areas.
Finally, he expects a four-year run that will include some fine moments for the team.
“I know what coach Polson and Shane Talbert are doing with the program. I think this program is heading in the right direction and in a couple years I think we can take it to the next level.”
Altman said he knows he’s got many improvements to make, but said he is happy with his progress so far.
“I wanted to make an impact on the team,” he said. “I feel like I’ve proven myself. I know there’s a long way to go to become a better soccer and player and teammate.”
Altman hopes Johnson City fans can witness as entertaining a contest as the Bucs and Terriers put on in Spartanburg, when ETSU had 13 shots and Wofford 12, with five shots on goal from the Bucs and four from the Terriers. In addition to his score, those four shots on goal included a rocket off the right post by Altman about a minute into the game.
“The game was entertaining,” said Altman, who shifted to defensive mid for the last stretch as Wofford held the Bucs off. “It was end to end, and ETSU’s a quality team all around.”
Altman said he’s talked to some friends who are coming to Saturday’s game. “I’m used to family and friends supporting the team I’m playing for, so that will be a unique experience for me. I’m excited for it.”
So is Strickland, who plans to be in attendance. He’s watched video of some Wofford games but not yet seen Altman live as a college player.
“You can’t feel anything but excitement for him,” Strickland said. “I’m proud of what he’s doing. I know he’s got so much more. I truly think we’re gonna see Lucas at the next level after college.”
Polson is just happy with what the next four years is likely to hold, with Altman as a key cog among several talented underclassmen. That will include some continued play in the midfield, but Polson said that spot won’t be Altman’s primary role.
“I think his best position’s up top, but he’s such a presence in the air that in playing that defensive midfield position he’s able to go up and challenge and wins a lot of balls in the air.
“Around the goal, though, he’s good not only for himself but for his teammates. He’s going to be a handful for opponents the next four years. He’s just a joy to have on the team, he’s a mature kid who seems to be taking care of everything on and off the field. He’s one of those you really enjoy coaching.”
Polson must certainly have enjoyed coaching Altman Saturday at Furman. Altman followed his breakout against ETSU by scoring twice in the final 10 minutes in a 3-2 win. That gave the super freshman three goals, two of them game winners, in a span of five days. Tuesday, Altman was named the Southern Conference player of the week.