Men’s soccer standout Nathan Diehl’s road to Elon University wasn’t simply a drive on the well-paved I-40 from Tar Heel Country in Chapel Hill. His journey started on more of a gravel road off the highway detailed with potholes and kicked up dirt. He followed it, determined to find a program where he could make an impact.

Diehl, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, committed to play soccer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill early in high school, which he said took a lot of stress off of his shoulders when applying to college.

Once he got to UNC, he enjoyed it and loved his teammates, but the intense soccer environment left him questioning his decision to play.

“Coming from Birmingham where soccer is foreign was such a radical shift in perspective,” Diehl said. “And the mentality it took to succeed at the UNC level of college soccer was something I hadn’t developed at all because I had been through such a lenient academy program.”

Adjusting to the professionalism wasn’t a problem for Diehl. He hit a roadblock when it came to the “coldness of the coaches” and the inability to have a discussion where his opinion was valued.

During the fall season of his sophomore year at UNC, Diehl considered ending his soccer career. A friend, who happened to be a skilled soccer player but didn’t play in college, pushed him to stay the course.

“He told me to keep playing because you only have so much time left to play, and when you lose it, it’s like you don’t realize how much you need it until it’s gone,” Diehl said. “It flipped a switch in me. I started working harder at soccer and when I didn’t see the results that I wanted at UNC, I wasn’t distraught. I was just determined to go somewhere else.”

Round two of the recruiting process

When a player is looking to transfer, they are in control of the entire process. Everything begins and ends with them. Coaches can’t help instigate or push for that release in any way.

Diehl had about a month and a half to set up his future plans and carry them through. He spent the first three weeks after deciding to transfer looking at other schools that were on his list before he had committed to UNC, including University of Alabama-Birmingham, which was right in his backyard.

The player makes the decision, has a meeting with the coaching staff and communicates with the athletic department of his or her school, which then issues him or her a release that allows them to communicate with other schools and programs. 

“The recruiting process starts for us upon receiving that release,” said Elon men’s soccer coach Chris Little. “Then we follow up and see what the situation was and why it was that they wanted to leave.”

The Elon coaching staff, headed by Darren Powell at the time, was familiar with Diehl coming out of high school, but once a player commits, they focus their attention to other potential recruits. Diehl’s transfer request was among 25 to 30 others that the program collects every year.

“We look at the same two things regardless of the player,” Little said. “At our level in the top 25, all the players have ability. It’s a given that people are talented. The two things that we always look for are [if they] are hungry and do they want to develop their talent, and that’s pretty clear.”

Diehl was looking to leave a very good institution, so for Little, then an assistant coach at Elon, the answers were pretty clear. There was a spot at right back he could fill and the coaches knew he had the versatility and ability to upgrade their team. For them, it was a no-brainer.

Diehl looked at Elon after deciding he wasn’t ready to go back to the waiting arms of his parents in Alabama and didn’t want to leave North Carolina. 

And when his UNC teammates found out Diehl was transferring, they highly recommended Elon. According to Diehl, the close-knit UNC soccer community offered some insight into what kind of school Elon was and what the guys on the team were like.

He said he was on campus for about two hours and had a longer conversation with the Elon men’s soccer coaches than he had in his three semesters with the UNC coaches.

“Later that day, I was already dead set to come to Elon,” Diehl said. “It was just that simple.”

Diehl committed despite never having met any of his future teammates, and he says that would’ve persuaded him even more. It was important to Diehl that he knew and felt like he had influence and wasn’t just another blue practice dummy stuck in the ground.

He found that at Elon with personable coaches who immediately inspired and encouraged him. Diehl went from rarely seeing the field at UNC to playing in every match for the Phoenix and starting in all but one.

He also joined a talented group of players who had no national accolades. But Diehl said they are some of the best he’s seen and are willing to support each other despite competing for minutes.

“There is no on or off field hostility, and that’s what helped make us so successful,” Diehl said. “Everyone has everyone else’s back, and you’re expected to do the same for them.”

Transitioning to Elon’s environment

Outside of soccer, Diehl felt it was much easier to connect with people. Academically, UNC and Elon have similar rigorous standards and high expectations for students. For Diehl, the only key difference was the class sizes. With a 12:1 student to teacher ratio, Diehl couldn’t skip class anymore, but he said he adjusted better than expected.

“I feel like I integrated pretty well,” Diehl said. “I try to be open-minded and respectful of other people and kind, and that goes a long way when you’re meeting new people.”

From a coaching perspective, Little said that with every player, they’re just trying to establish what it is the player is looking for in their experience and how the coaches can help.

“When you’re building the relationship and when you have a transfer, you get to what they’re looking for pretty quickly,” Little said. “They’re mature and have been through the process.”

According to Little, there’s a reason why the player wants to transfer, which means they know what they’re looking for and what’s going to make them happy.

“The question is can we provide that in our university and soccer program,” Little said. “It was pretty clear that [Diehl] was what we were looking for and hopefully we could give him what he was looking for.”

Diehl finally feels like he is making a difference. People take notice of him and respect him for what he contributes to the team and socially, which he says makes him comfortable without being complacent.

Becoming part of the legacy

The Elon men’s soccer team has a certain vibe around campus that stands out from other athletic teams.

And for Diehl, it is that legacy and willingness to sacrifice for the guys to the right and left of him in the huddle that makes them successful.

“There is nothing that’s too extreme,” Diehl said. “You’re willing to support your teammates through anything, and other places that’s a cliché, but here it’s a mentality. It’s who we are.”

With three straight Southern Conference Tournament titles, three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and an end of the year ranking in the top 25 in the national polls, the success and lasting impact of the team on the field is undeniable.

It is that “something special” on and off the field that reassures Diehl of his decision.

“The legacy is the best part about the team,” Diehl said. “That grit and work ethic and determination and willingness to sacrifice on and off the field. It’s a legacy of guys that are bold to the point of recklessness, but it’s endearing in a certain sense.”

After transferring and coming to Elon, Diehl said his love of soccer has grown.

“From the way that this place is and how the players and coaches treat you and the sense of camaraderie,” Diehl said, “everything works towards improving my own desire to play soccer.”